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President Casteen's Speech on Diversity

September 16, 2005

We've gathered this afternoon to express our common opposition, our sense of moral indignation in reaction to a series of incidents in which persons who want to intimidate students and other members of this community have used the language of racial abuse and racial intolerance in ways intended to drive apart this community.

I think it's fair to say that we've all come to express unity. I've come to express solidarity, a sense of oneness with those who have been abused. I hope you've done the same. Our purpose is to say that we are one with regard to the human dignity that belongs to every member of this community and indeed to all humankind.

Racial slurs, insults about a person's sexual orientation, sexual attacks have one thing in common: all are committed by cowards, all are acts carried out by people who want to hide, all are intended in some way to drive out members of the community, to separate them from their sense of belonging and their sense of having the right to learn and to be in this university.

These acts threaten the core freedoms that make university life what it is: the right to move safely through the community of learners. To do so with the conviction of fit, of belonging, with the understanding that it is yours to possess, to own as a member.

I want to talk as I ask you to put on the black ribbons that are here. And I ask you to use those ribbons as a way of expressing oneness with those who have been abused. I want to talk a bit about how we address this kind of problem within the community. One essential feature of addressing the problem effectively is to report incidents. Students, I think by and large, know how to do that. All administrative personnel have direct instructions now as to how they respond to reports, how they pass them along to the police, to Vice President Lampkin, to Mr. Sandridge. But the basic formula is this: as soon as you become conscious of an incident, call 911. The vast majority of students nowadays have cell phones, there are the blue light phones on university grounds, there are other phones. 911. Immediately.

Second: leave the evidence in place. The police are exploring ways to bring charges that do not, in fact, provide the kind of protection that the First Amendment necessarily provides to persons who speak hatred. But, at the same time, they need the evidence. They need things left in place.

Third: work to remember all the details you can. Memorize them. Study the scene and be prepared to recreate the scene in your own words. The most effective single way to help the police to identify and to arrest perpetrators is to provide fast and detailed information.

And then, a final observation: I have been struck over the course of these weeks of uncertainty as to what was going on over this period when indignities have appeared in many places in the community by the extraordinary capacity to speak clearly, to speak truthfully, to speak without the language of anger or of fear in describing what has happened. The students who have reported these incidents have, in my view, provided a kind of textbook on how to talk publicly about the need for a common moral response. There may well be crimes that can be determined to have been committed. There may well be actions that can be taken by the police. But in the end, the act of standing together, of refusing to let our sisters or our brothers be cut off from us, of insisting that this university is a single institution in which gender or color of skin or sexual preference or ethnic origin or religion or other elements that can be used to divide our population do not divide us. That, in the end, is the fundamental gesture that can be made. The rational voice speaking calmly and directly and truthfully about the common core values that hold us together is the weapon. And that weapon, that quiet, persistent voice that expresses dignity, that acknowledges dignity, that demands dignity of response is the most valuable single weapon that we have. We will use the other weapons – all of them – but we will in the end stand together because we are together and because we believe in one another.

I want finally to ask you to take on yourselves as kind of mission: persuading others to wear similar ribbons to these and to do it persistently all the way through next weekend. Members of our board who discussed how we might communicate the way we address this issue to the broadest possible audience realize today that with the homecoming football game coming up next Saturday there is chance for individual students standing near the gates talking one-on-one to alumni, to neighbors, to others who come to the games to present the ribbons, to say why we wear the ribbons and ask them to do the same thing. You may find people who refuse. You may find people who don't get it. But we'll provide the basic explanation in the form of appropriate signs and appropriate language. I will be endorsing it. Others will be endorsing it. The point basically is to say in a quiet, dignified way – a way worthy of Dr. King – that we are together, that we believe in one another and that we believe in each person's right to be here, to succeed here, to belong here. That's the purpose.

As you know our board has been working for about a year and a half on a set of issues having to do with diversity and equity. The last several days have seen a number of culminating events including the appointment of Bill Harvey to become the new vice president and the chief equity and diversity officer. He will start his official duties here on the first of November. I'd like to ask Warren Thompson, who chairs the board's committee that is overseeing this work if he might speak a few words on behalf of the board. I should say also the director, Mr. Farrell, a number of board members who have worked on this project are here on these steps with me today, that they have come because they want to stand with you. And that they – as you and I are – are wearing the ribbons because they have a meaning to this community. They hold us together. Mr Thompson.

(Warren Thompson)

Thank you, Mr. President. Good afternoon. I stand before you this evening realizing that we have issues before us. But I also realize today that the issues we confront are not new ones. When I was a student 25 years ago I encountered many of the same things that the students are encountering today. And just two weeks ago, as I expressed in our board meeting a few minutes ago, while doing business in New York City I approached a taxicab and as soon as I got close to the cab, he pulled off. And I can guarantee you that ten years from now incidents will continue to occur. But the question is, will those incidents, will those people, stop us or will we win? And I'm convinced when I look at this audience today that the vast majority of people are on the right side. The vast majority of students are on the side of good and not evil, on the side of morality and not immorality, on the side of being together as opposed to being divisive. And so I'm encouraged today when I look out on the audience to think about where this university is and how we will face this challenge together.

We put a plan in place that started about two and half years ago and our goal and objective is to make this university the most diverse, the most inclusive university in this country. And we're not going to be derailed by anything. We're not going to be slowed by any one individual. We're going to gain momentum.

The acts that have occurred over the last few weeks are going to give us a greater sense of resolve that we're headed in the right direction and we're not going to let up. So I'm asking each of you to continue to participate, continue to be vigilant in your efforts, but most importantly continue to keep your eyes on the prize and the prize is that we're going to be the best in the country when it comes to diversity and inclusiveness. This cannot be done alone, but together we will accomplish this and we will continue to make the University of Virginia that beacon light on the hill where all can come and feel that the education process is freely given to each and every individual.

Thanks a lot and I look forward to combining with you this week as we go forward into homecoming in a show of solidarity, not only on campus, but to the alumni and guests who will visit us next weekend. Thanks a lot.

(President Casteen)

Warren, thank you. I want to express special gratitude to the choir who began this event and finally to say thank you to all of you. We have some work to do. We have a week of persuading people that it's time to take the symbolic step. Let's do that together. Let's do it because we believe in it. And let's do it because our brothers and our sisters are threatened. And because this is the gesture that says we stand with them. Thank you.