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Alumni News — Winter 2005

Watershed Events

In my last column, I wrote about how our summer storms changed the University's landscape. I described the violent weather that toppled trees, mangled gardens, and generally tore up the Grounds with furious winds, rain and lightning. At the beginning of the fall semester, we experienced a different kind of disturbance, one that sprang up as suddenly as a summer storm and shook the community's confidence in surprising ways.

Just as the semester began, several of our African-American students were the targets of vicious verbal harassment and abuse on Grounds and in surrounding neighborhoods. These verbal assaults, all demeaning and at least potentially intimidating, were specifically racial. Other kinds of events occurred also, including random physical assaults. Some of these physical assaults involved perpetrators of one race (reportedly not students) and victims of another, but none met the criteria applied by the police and the FBI for classification as hate crimes.

Verbal harassment of minority persons seems to happen almost everywhere, and it poses unusual challenges for universities. Employers can set workplace rules to prohibit it, and virtually all major employers routinely prohibit the kind of talk that some of our students met this fall, and punish perpetrators. Owing to the First Amendment and related doctrines, public universities do not have this capacity where students and (generally speaking) faculty members are concerned. Perhaps here, of all universities, the First Amendment carries special weight. Mr. Jefferson's dictum that here we will tolerate any error so long as reason is free to combat it defines much of our culture.

Yet persons who shout abuse at lone women students walking peaceably along public streets with their books in their hands, then speed away; who lurk in public restrooms to scrawl racial insults or threats on the walls; who post notes on students' doors or car windshields to insult them are in no sense engaging in the discourse of which Mr. Jefferson wrote.

Students and their families, our Board and faculty, alumni who have commented this fall, and I are concerned about these events. We have responded in several ways. Just after the first incidents occurred, I published a statement condemning intolerance and calling for public actions to support the student victims. The Faculty Senate issued a similar statement, and so also did most of the deans, most of our parents' organizations, and the leaders of all of the major student organizations. Similar statements and gestures continued through the fall.

Students, faculty and administrators gathered at the Rotunda on a Friday afternoon to denounce racial intolerance and express support. A member of the Board of Visitors, student leaders, and I spoke, and we distributed black lapel ribbons to be worn by persons who wanted to support our students. Over time, the number of ribbons distributed reached 60,000.

We distributed wallet-sized cards with information on how to reach the police immediately when threatened, door hanger cards for dorm rooms and tent cards for dining hall tables with safety tips. We adopted a new protocol for administrative reporting and responses to incidents of racial (or other) abuse or harassment, including violence. The Alumni Association offered a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of persons committing crimes against students.

The University Police and the FBI have investigated each report of a potential crime. Their work has been complicated by the stealth with which thugs move through the community, but they have worked systematically to provide support for victims and to remain visible to students.

We seem to have weathered the worst of these events. In a fall when more than the usual number of underage students (male and female and of all races) have gotten into some form of trouble (medical and sometimes legal) because of excessive drinking, the coming of cool nights and a general realization that it is time to get things back into hand have combined to make things calmer. The police work, the work done by the deans and student leaders, and the involvement of parents (African-American and white, but more of the former) have helped.

Perhaps most importantly, Bill Harvey, our first Chief Officer for Diversity and Equity and a vice president, began work on November 1. In addition to a national reputation for success in dealing with diversity and equity issues in universities, he brings a reasoned and entirely competent approach to what are for many students and their parents shocking and disturbing incidents. The students already know him. At the open meeting in Old Cabell Hall during family weekend in October, the audience applauded enthusiastically when he stood up to be introduced.

It is tempting to see this fall as a watershed. Few white students began this academic year fully conscious of how pervasive racial abuse remains in our society. Many persons of all races were initially frustrated that most of the perpetrators appeared to those investigating to be non-students, then were reassured when white students and their parents began to see the African-American students' need for assistance and support as our common business, not as a special concern for minority persons only. Whatever their degree of involvement this fall—and many were not active in these issues—our people get it now.

We value diversity here because it is a core principle of University life—the modern realization of our founder's dream of attracting the youth of all states to come and drink of the cup of knowledge with us. The recognition that African-American students might leave or stay away in the future because of these incidents has alarmed many who, as I do, recognize these students as leaders to be challenged and nurtured for what they are and will be. If the fall turns out to have been a watershed, perhaps it will have to do with reaffirmation that among the truths that are to us self-evident, equal entitlement to personal dignity, safety, and the freedom to learn, without targeted harm or harassment, is fundamental.

John T. Casteen III