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Comments by Faculty Senate Chair to UVA Board of Visitors

Margaret F. Riley — Dec. 9, 2016

This afternoon I would like to talk about the social climate at the University.

I have been at UVA for more than twenty years and there is more tension on grounds now than at any time that I can remember. Of course, this is not only here at UVA, but is being experienced at universities throughout the country. Recently, many of us have described this as relating to the “Run up and aftermath of the election.” I am coming to believe that description misplaces cause and effect. There were already climate issues at many universities before the election heated up. That may have been a harbinger of what has come since then. All of these issues, including the discourse of the election, reflect deep fissures in our society. I therefore don’t believe that this is going to go away soon and we are going to have to work our way through it.

As much as there is increased tension, there is also a welcome increase in community engagement here at UVA. Students, faculty, administrators, staff—and some of you here on the BOV—have all come together in sustained dialog. I am proud to say, that at least so far, new challenges have been bringing us together, not pulling us apart. We have had teach-ins. As he described this morning, the Provost sponsored a charrette on community values. Last Friday, the students held a five-hour town hall focused on diversity and inclusion. On Wednesday, the faculty senate held a town hall on free speech and helping faculty engage in difficult conversations.

Most important, the hallmark of all of these events has been respect.

I believe that the role of higher education has never been more important. We need places where we can have authentic and profound discussion among people who may disagree. And this institution, which was founded on notions of public education, free speech, and producing educated citizen leaders, has a special role to play. We need to lead the national discourse on what public education means for this generation. We need to think about who gets to be a citizen leader in this century and how to train our students—of all religions, ethnicities and genders-- to aspire to that role.

Faculty have a crucial role in this and it is one that is at times fraught. It is our role to foster free speech, but at the same time recognize, as Geoff Stone, a noted first amendment scholar, has recently reminded us: the benefits of free speech are shared by all of us, but the burdens are more often disproportionately borne by minorities and marginalized populations. It is our job sometimes to be provocative, but we also need to create a safe place to learn. At the same time, we need to teach our students that safe does not necessarily mean comfortable. At times we need to be advocates, but we also need to allow people who disagree with us to be heard and to teach our students to do the same. And we also need to recognize that our role extends beyond our research and teaching. The inspiration for the American experiment in residential higher education is the idea that as much learning takes place out of the classroom as in it.

Last June, I suggested that UVA’s success in this era of turmoil will be dependent on trust, communication and some luck. I still think that—just more so.

I am now cautiously optimistic. My optimism is based on the lines of communication that we have built. It is hard to demonize people that you know. Dinners like the one we had last night that bring the Board, faculty and administrators together and provide opportunities to get to know one another are important. Phoebe Willis’ work with the newsletters—which not only give information but provide students a view of Board members as people—is also crucial. I have confidence that we can all work together to bring many more such opportunities to UVA."