The Imperfect Pursuit of High Ideals

August 11, 2018

It is an honor to be here with all of you today, which is the one-year anniversary of the march on UVA and Charlottesville and, much less importantly, the 11th day of my presidency.

I would like to start by recognizing those who lost their lives one year ago: Heather Heyer, Trooper Pilot Peter Berke Bates and Lieutenant Pilot Jay Cullen. Our hearts are with their families and everyone who knew them. I would like to especially acknowledge Heather’s mother Susan, who is with us today.

I would also like to thank all of those who worked so hard to put together this event, as well as those who have participated in it. And thanks, finally, to all of you for being here. It’s important that you are here. That we are here.

We cannot turn back the clock and undo the tragedies that occurred last year. Nor can we take away the pain, both physical and psychological, of those injured by the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who marched on our Grounds and who attacked members of our community both here and downtown. We can apologize, which I will get to, but we can’t undo.

I wasn’t here last year. I watched it, in horror, from afar and in real time online. But that’s different from being here. And I would be the first to acknowledge that what happened was experienced differently by many in the community. It was different for those who were close. It was different for people of color. It was different for those of the Jewish faith. It was different for those who were young and shocked, and for those who were older and less surprised, perhaps feeling, in the words of civil rights heroine Fannie Lou Hamer, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I was not personally attacked, for a host of reasons – distance, race, and religion among them.

So I offer these thoughts with deep humility, and in the spirit of an ally. I cannot truly know the pain of others. But I can recognize it and stand with them, in sorrow and in support. And that is why I am here today. Indeed, that is a big part of why I agreed, two weeks after the march, to become the next president of the University of Virginia. Despite its flaws, which are not unique to this place, I love this University and I love Charlottesville, having lived here for fifteen years and having raised our kids here with my wife, Katie. I felt compelled, and still do, to stand as an ally with those who were attacked, with those who still suffer, and with all of you who long for a better and more just future.

As for that future, I believe that in the face of tragedy, having endured some myself, that we can still find the strength to move forward. We must. William Wordsworth wrote a poem over 200 years ago in which he got it, if I dare say so, almost right. He wrote: “Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower, we will grieve not, but find strength in what remains behind.” It’s almost right because I think we can, and we should, grieve for the fact than nothing can bring back the splendor and the glory of those whose lives were lost last August. But we can still, despite our grief, find strength in what remains behind.

And we can still have hope, which is what summons us here this morning.

When the neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched toward the Jefferson statue last year, they were met by a group of intrepid individuals who had gathered around the statue. It was a remarkable moment of courage and bravery by our students and community members, who stood fast and found themselves, perhaps to their surprise, in a position of appearing to defend the Thomas Jefferson statue from attack. I doubt very much that all of those forced into that position were intending to defend the statue itself, and I am certain they were fully aware of Jefferson’s complicated legacy. Author of the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed the inherent equality of all, he was also a slave owner. Yet these students and community members were forced into appearing to keep the statue safe from the white supremacists who had marched through our Grounds, intent on causing terror and seemingly intent on laying claim to Jefferson the slaveowner as opposed to Jefferson the idealist.

This clash around the Jefferson statue, which was all too real to those attacked, also symbolized the on-going struggle between our aspirations and our realities.  

Professor Annette Gordon-Reed described this well. She’s an eminent Jefferson scholar whose research helped convinced historians and others about the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Last year, she had this to say:

“American ideals have always clashed with harsh American realities. We saw that clash on the grounds of UVA. But how do we continue in the face of depressing realities to allow ourselves to hold fast to the importance of having aspirations, and recognize that the pursuit of high ideals—even if carried out imperfectly—offers the only real chance of bringing forth good in the world? In many ways, grappling with that question is what being a scholar of Jefferson is all about. Perhaps coming fully to grips with the paradoxes that Jefferson’s life presents is what being an American is about.”

This, to me, is one of the most profound observations of what took place last year on our Grounds and in Charlottesville. Our professed and cherished ideals as a community were confronted with the grim and horrific reminder that everyday realities are sometimes quite different. To wrestle with that difference, to come to grips with the gaps that still exist between our aspirations and our everyday realities, is indeed what being an American is about. It is also, importantly, what being a member of this community is about, or should be.

We aspire, rightly so, to be a university committed to living the values of diversity, of tolerance, of civility, of equity and inclusion. These are our high ideals. And, over time, we have come closer to realizing them. The university today is a much different place than it was 200 years ago; it is a much different place than it was 65 years ago, when black students were excluded, or 50 years ago when women were excluded and, to my eyes, a different place than it was even five years ago, when I was last here as a faculty member. And we are a university that should be proud to have graduated innumerable alumni who have dedicated their lives to advancing our values and to advancing racial, social, and economic justice, like Judge Thomas himself or like his friend and fellow alum Elaine Jones, former head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Or like Leah Ward Sears, Donald McEachin, John F. Merchant, Gregory Swanson, Robert Kennedy, Alice Jackson, Walter Ridley, Wesley Harris, Clarence Cain, and Dr. Vivian Pinn—to name just a few. There has, undoubtedly, been progress, which should rightfully be celebrated.

But this is also the university, we should recognize, if we have the courage to be candid and open to self-examination, that graduated two of the organizers of last year’s hateful march. To be part of this community—to be an honest and courageous member of this community – we have to recognize that there is still a gap between our aspirations and our realities.  

Faced with this gap, we have three choices: we can reject those aspirations altogether, as the marchers through our Grounds would do; we can aspire to a better world but condemn imperfections in those who might otherwise be our allies, which is sadly all too often the case today; or we can, with generosity of spirit, recognize, as Professor Gordon-Reed put it, “that the pursuit of high ideals—even if carried out imperfectly—offers the only real chance of bringing forth good in the world.”

I am here because I choose the third path. I believe with every fiber of my being that the pursuit of high ideals, even if carried out imperfectly, is our only chance. And I believe that is what universities, and ours in particular, should be all about.

To follow this path, we must recognize that those who are allies, who share our aspirations, are like family. Just like family members, we are not always going to like each other, and we are going to get annoyed, exasperated, hurt, and disappointed by and with each other. (Or maybe that’s just my family.) But, like family, we are bound together. We may disagree about strategy and about tactics, but we should recognize that we are on the same side. And we are not on the side of white supremacists or neo-Nazis. That part, at least, should be easy.

The harder and more important part is seeking together to close the space between aspirations and reality. How, in other words, do we live our values? We say we believe in equity, in diversity, in tolerance, and in inclusion. I believe those who espouse those values are sincere, and I know that so many of you have been working tirelessly to bring those values to life. Yet we also know that there remains a gap between those espoused values and everyday reality here at the University, as is true on campuses around the country. And the question remains: how do we close that gap?

As I listened in to conversations over the past year, this is the dominant question I heard asked around Grounds: how do we close that gap? How do we more fully live our values? This is the question asked by the deans’ working group, which led them to propose and ultimately secure funding that will help us increase student and faculty diversity and to create programs that will encourage members of our community to cross lines of difference to find points in common. This question of how we live our values is also the question that has opened up newly vibrant conversations about the university’s past, and conversations about the university’s relationship with the surrounding communities of Charlottesville and Albemarle county.

And this is all to the good. And it is quite different—markedly, drastically, different—from the motives of those who marched last year. Let’s be clear: This group of marchers represented an extreme group of lost souls who want to reject our values and our aspirations, and they were emboldened—let’s be honest yet again—by a political climate that fosters the idea that those fundamental values might actually be up for grabs.

Such a different message, if you think about it, from the one delivered by the great Abraham Lincoln, who famously appealed to “the better angels of our nature” in an effort to bring the country together and save the union.

To summon hope today is to summon the better angels of our nature, who can help lead us down the path to the place where our aspirations and our realities meet. As a university, this means we must have the courage to acknowledge the gaps that still exist. It means we must admit to mistakes, including those made last year, understanding – and trusting that others understand – that mistakes in times of crises are inevitable, some avoidable and some not. It means pledging to do our best to learn from our mistakes, because that is the best that any human – or any institution, which is nothing more than a collection of humans – can do. And it means not being afraid to apologize for mistakes we have made. We do nothing more than recognize our common humanity to say to those who were attacked around the statue last year: I am sorry. We are sorry.

Beyond this, we must be a good neighbor to Charlottesville and the surrounding counties, which are also home to our employees, who are the lifeblood of this university. We must treat our students, faculty, and staff with care, respect, and dignity. We must seek ways to serve others and to make the world a better place through our teaching, our research, our medical care, and our partnerships. We must also seek, despite our righteous anger, to understand those who came last year in hatred, and to do so in the spirit suggested by Nelson Mandela, who observed that people are not born with hatred in their hearts but instead must be taught to hate.

Just like any large and somewhat raucous family, we will certainly disagree and argue about the best ways to live our values. But this should be an argument in good faith, undergirded by a sense of trust and love. Functional families argue all of the time, or at least that is what I tell myself. But they know in their bones that they are connected by an unbreakable bond of love, trust, and respect. And they give each other the benefit of the doubt, knowing that they are – and always will be – in this together.

To the family that is UVA and the surrounding communities, I will end by highlighting this basic and simple fact: we are in this together. My deepest hope is that in the months and years ahead we will truly feel like we are in this together and that we will feel like our fates are connected. That we feel, as Dr. King observed, that we are “bound together in a single garment of destiny.”

I stand here today as an ally. I am surely an imperfect one, which is to say I am human, like all of you. I will disappoint some of you for doing too much and others for doing too little, some for going too fast and others for not going fast enough. But I know in my heart where I would like to go, and that is the place where our aspirations and our realities finally intersect. I know that many of you, so many of you, would like to get there as well, and I look forward to our imperfect journey together.

Thank you.