Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

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. (Faculty Club)

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

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. (Faculty Club)

Article excerpt

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 blackface 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. …

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