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What’s at Stake for UVa?

What’s at Stake for UVa?
University president weighs in on the campus’s current racial climate and ongoing efforts to strengthen its multicultural milieu.
By Kendra Hamilton

The following Q&A session with the University of Virginia’s president, Dr. John T. Casteen, follows news reports that the venerable state school, which appeared to have forged a bright multicultural future from its troubled racial past, has been stung in a national string of “blackface” incidents.

The news that three students — one dressed as Uncle Sam with an Afro wig, the others dressed as Venus and Serena Williams — had donned black face paint at a fraternity Halloween party was made public in late November, prompting a stern warning from Casteen.

“Human dignity, decency, mutual respect and understandings informed by a genuine knowledge of history … belong to all of us, not just to the students affected,” he wrote in the Nov. 22 statement. “Efforts to make this university an authentic cross-section of what we are as a country and progress made toward this goal are too important to be cast aside by the careless acts of a few.”

Both fraternities involved in the incident — Zeta Psi and the Kappa Alpha Order — were suspended, for a time, by national fraternal leaders and placed on trial by the UVa Inter-Fraternity Council for committing racially offensive acts. The panel that tried the fraternities criticized them for “an apparent historical blindness and lack of sensitivity,” but ruled that the members’ actions fell within the bounds of constitutionally protected free speech (see Black Issues, Dec. 19, 2002).

BI: The statement that you issued on the fraternity party incident was an unusually strong response by any standard of measure. Can you tell our readers what you consider to be at stake?

JC: The climate of openness and civility among students. This matters to all of our students. Student leaders who asked for my support in connection with this incident offered evidence that similar events have occurred in recent years. They see a pattern of ill-informed, insulting behavior. They did not see this incident as isolated. They did not see it as a violation of law. Rather, they argued — and I agree, based on the information they showed me — that decency and civility within the university community are threatened if only those directly affronted speak out for mutual respect among students.

BI: Your determination to use this incident as a “teachable moment” was particularly striking. What was the thinking that shaped that response, and have you begun formulating the types of forums in which something like that might occur?

JC: This strikes me as fundamental to strengthening a university culture that nurtures all of our students. Not a witch hunt, not a confrontation, this situation poses an opportunity to teach to a new generation the long struggle, legal and personal, by which the university came to be a haven for individual rights and equity.

BI: Dean Rick Turner of the university’s Office of African American Affairs has issued a call for a required class on intergroup relations. Is that an idea that has the administration’s support?

JC: Course requirements are products of dialogue within the faculty and between faculty and students. This is the audience to which Dean Turner is addressing his proposal, and he has every right to do this. The undergraduate college is reviewing its curriculum now. Its dean has been particularly thoughtful about building acknowledgment of societal, legal and educational change into his own public lectures. I am hearing arguments on several sides of this issue. There’s no way to guess now just what the faculty will eventually approve.

BI: UVa has emerged as a national leader both in admitting and graduating African American students, and African American students seem to display high levels of satisfaction in their university experience as well as a high degree of academic excellence. At the same time, there appear to be rumblings of discontent: controversial statements from the board of visitors, a recent march by Black students on the offices of The Cavalier Daily. So that leads to two questions. How do you keep your ear to the ground on what’s going on beneath the surface? And what is your assessment of race relations at UVa?

JC: I listen to students, to their parents, to deans and faculty, to the community. I make my own positions and convictions clear, but make it clear also that I respect differences, including differences of position or opinion.

(My view of race relations here is that) our situation largely mirrors the national climate. Opinions and experiences differ here as they do elsewhere, but our history and a determination to protect unfettered inquiry and debate make these issues especially critical to be understood and taught here.

BI: You have a long personal history at the University of Virginia. You were there as an undergrad during the early years of integration. Can you describe a specific memory that crystallized your thinking on issues of access and fairness in higher education?

JC: An early morning in 1961 when I watched the only African American student in my class stand and recite in a required second-year French course and realized how profoundly alone he was, how profoundly brave — both he and I had grown up in Tidewater during “Massive Resistance”* — and how profoundly important.

BI: How would you compare UVa today to the UVa you knew as an undergrad?

JC: It’s a better place now: more generative in its intellectual life, far more authentic in its reflection of what America is — recall that until 1970 Virginia law prohibited women’s enrollment in most programs here — and more responsive to public needs. We were once provincial and inward-focused. Not so now. Diverse students and faculty address the world generally, not merely the small parts that any one person may individually know. Standards and expectations are higher. So is student performance.

BI: As an administrator, you were once actively involved with race and admissions. Who were the people who inspired you at that time?

JC: My mentors then included Lloyd Ricks and Jean Rayburn, veteran admissions officers who believed in breaking down barriers and opening up the university; Frank Hereford, a president who saw the need for change and caused it; Bill Elwood and Bill Harris, veteran deans who stood for the rights and dignity of individual students and devoted themselves to making civil rights become individual and personal rights; and the students and families and school personnel with whom we worked.

BI: What were the university’s goals in terms of creating a diverse student body and a harmonious racial climate? How have those goals been met or exceeded?

JC: The goals and timetables built into the Virginia Plan for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education,** plus the university’s internal determination to remake itself to reflect Virginia and the United States as we really are. By and large, the university met or exceeded its goals. More importantly, the new populations of students, minority students and women, surged ahead academically and in student life when once given a place to stand.

BI: Where do you feel there’s progress yet to be made?

JC: Schooling K-12 is not yet genuinely equal in the opportunities it offers young people. It has improved, but in truth, disproportionately large numbers of minority students still attend the least adequately financed and supported public schools in Virginia. The states, including Virginia, have fallen into the easy habit of testing furiously to establish minimum competencies rather than teaching and counseling (and spending tax dollars) to achieve optimal competence. We need to encourage students and teachers to strive for the best they can do and be, especially in the core academic courses, and to move into advanced courses early and stay in them all the way through the (advanced placement) or (international baccalaureate) levels.

BI: UVa has been targeted by groups such as the Center for Individual Rights and the Center for Equal Opportunity on its use of race as a criterion in admissions decisions. And at least one of the initiatives by the CIR, at the University of Michigan, will be used by the Supreme Court to undertake a review of the Bakke decision in March. Has the pendulum swung all the way back to the days before Brown vs. Board of Education? Is affirmative action to reverse the legacy of discrimination an idea whose time has passed?

JC: Yes, some sort of pendulum is swinging, but it is still moving, and I don’t know where it will stop. In my view, affirmative action is not the core issue, and equality or equity of opportunity is the core issue. I see affirmative action as a management technique — a mechanism to keep the system honest. There are more ways than one to do that.

I see equality of opportunity as the core value and core test of our success — in teaching students the hard courses early, well and successfully; in identifying and recruiting student bodies that look like America; and in opening access to all of our programs of study to any and every student who makes effective use of access to prepare herself or himself for success.

Higher education does not address these issues alone. K-12, elected officials, parents and the community all share the obligation to make learning accessible and effective for every student. Successes are won individually, by students, parents, teachers, admissions personnel, who take as their province the mission of preparing themselves and those for whom they are responsible to make the largest and best uses of what schools and colleges offer.

Management systems are important, but they are not sufficient. The core issues are commitment and wisdom in providing for young people the tools they use to build their own futures.

* “Massive Resistance” was Virginia’s policy to prevent school integration in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1956, a special session of the Virginia General Assembly gave the governor the power to withdraw state funding from schools that attempted to comply with Brown. Between 1958 and 1959, public schools across the state closed, and thousands attended “white flight academies,” rather than integrate.

**The Virginia Plan for Equal Opportunity in State-Supported Institutions of Higher Education (1978), which included specific numerical targets for students, faculty and classified employees, emerged from the “Adams case,” a landmark civil rights lawsuit filed in 1970 by Kenneth Adams of Mississippi. The suit alleged, in part, that the 1954 Supreme Court ban on school segregation was not being carried out and sought the withdrawal of all federal funds until the state of Mississippi desegregated its educational system. The suit was joined immediately by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Women’s Equity Action League and other civil rights groups, and the list of defendants also was expanded to include all Southern and border states that maintained state-supported historically Black colleges and universities. UVa was certified as being “in full compliance with” the Virginia Plan in 1985.

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