UVA Standing Firm in Wake of Charlottesville Violence - Higher Education
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UVA Standing Firm in Wake of Charlottesville Violence

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by Tiffany Pennamon


The nation and American democracy has progressed despite hateful bigotry for more than two centuries, and “hateful actions in Charlottesville or elsewhere will not stop it either,” said Dr. Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia (UVA).

Sabato and other UVA faculty members and administrators condemned the violent protests started by hundreds of White nationalists as they gathered on the university’s grounds and in downtown Charlottesville over the weekend. The school also issued statements citing their commitment to inclusion and diversity.

“The policy matter at play here, the removal of Confederate statues, is one where it’s reasonable to have differing opinions,” Sabato added. “But these White supremacists aren’t interested in expressing disagreement in a civil way – rather, they want to crush anyone who opposes them. It’s scary and disturbing, and their behavior shows that they are not subjects of oppression, but rather that they seek to oppress others.”

Dr. Teresa A. Sullivan, UVA’s president, addressed the student body on Aug. 4 in advance of the Aug. 12 rally, and urged students and UVA community members to avoid the rally and any risk of physical confrontation and violence at the event. “The organizers of the rally want confrontation; do not gratify their desire,” Sullivan’s Aug. 4 statement said.

White nationalists first took to the UVA campus on Friday evening to protest the city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee earlier this year, and what they believe is an attack on their American values. The statue remains pending the outcome of a lawsuit.

The “Unite the Right” rally on Saturday dissolved into violent clashes between White nationalists and counter-protesters, causing Gov. Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of the emergency.

UVA students on campus the night before the rally recalled seeing lit torches, “violence, hate, and blood” as members of the White nationalists groups marched towards the university’s rotunda.

While the White nationalist groups’ rights to protest and express their beliefs are protected under the First Amendment—regardless of the hate, bigotry, or racist rhetoric—Douglas Laycock, the Robert E. Scott Distinguished Professor of Law at UVA, said that the ensuing violence related to their protests, however, is not.

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Subsequently, UVA could not prohibit the White nationalist groups from its campus immediately before any violence occurred because it is a public institution.

Presidents of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP and the Albermarle-Charlottesville Chapter of the NAACP also issued statements condemning the march and rally by the White nationalists.

“Violence did not have to be demonstrated in order to express freedom of speech,” Janette Martin, president of the Albermarle-Charlottesville NAACP, said. “It appears that free speech was secondary to their main purpose which was to wreak havoc and violence in the community. They have been emboldened by the words and vocabulary of elected officials at the highest levels.”

President Donald J. Trump did not officially condemn or denounce the violence by the White nationalists until Monday afternoon—two days after one counter-protestor and two state troopers en route to help on the scene died.

Sullivan continued to update the university’s stance in a series of statements throughout the unruly weekend; notably, the university reemphasized its values for diversity and inclusion: “At the same time, we know that the ideologies and beliefs expressed by many of the groups that have converged on Charlottesville this weekend contradict our values of diversity, inclusion, and mutual respect. We strongly condemn intimidating and abhorrent behavior intended to strike fear and sow division in our community. Acts of violence are not protected by the First Amendment.”

Kimalee Dickerson, a second-year Ph.D. student and an Institute of Education Sciences predoctoral fellow at UVA, shared her disappointment not only for the White nationalists, but for her school’s response to the protests.

“I am sickened, deeply saddened, and angry about White nationalists and supremacists marching through my university spewing racist rhetoric fueled by hate and designed to inspire fear,” Dickerson said. “Just as importantly, however, I was disappointed by the University’s response to the incident,” and the student wondered “why the university president didn’t explicitly name White supremacists and racism in her statement,” she said.

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Students look to faculty and university administrators to set the campus tone and climate, Dickerson said, adding that educators must now “clearly denounce and condemn White supremacy and all forms of racism publicly in front of their students.”

Dr. Marcus L. Martin, vice president and chief diversity officer for diversity and equity at UVA, did just that and now faces the challenge of upholding diversity and inclusion for all students at the university despite the city’s laden ties to the Confederacy.

“The acts of White supremacists, neo-Nazis and members of the KKK in Charlottesville and on [UVA] Grounds August 11 and 12 were reprehensible and not the values of inclusion and diversity we strive to cultivate in our community,” Martin said. “Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who lost their lives and we pray for full recovery for those injured as a result of the cowardly acts of domestic terror. Hatred, bigotry and violence has no place in our community nor the greater society.”

Martin also specializes in emergency medicine, and was previously an assistant dean in UVA’s School of Medicine. In preparation for the event, the University of Virginia Medical Center canceled all elective surgeries to accommodate for injuries and mass casualties related to the protests in downtown Charlottesville.

UVA’s health system provided “exceptional service” to those injured by the acts of violence, Martin said. “Nurses, doctors and staff are to be commended for the compassionate care provided at such a demanding time of unprecedented violence in our community.”

University efforts to maintain an inclusive, welcoming and safe environment will continue across all of the schools and departments at UVA, Martin added.

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Conversations with students about hate, violence, and racism will not be easy, according to Sabato, director of the Center for Politics. But if left unattended, “such a cancer” can become the “thieves of democracy, attacking where and when we least expect it,” he warned.

The professor notes that the Center for Politics at UVA offers resources and programs that transcend partisan divides and helps connect scholars, elected officials, political practitioners, community leaders and the general public. With a focus on restorative public action, the center works to improve the health of the American democracy and also runs the Youth Leadership Initiative with an extensive network of nearly 100,000 civics teachers nationwide.

“We can’t run from the problem and we must never allow fear or cynicism or apathy to push people of good will from the public arena,” Sabato said. “Civics education and active citizen engagement remain the best antidotes to racism and hate.”

UVA’s school year is set to start later this month as students return from their summer breaks.

Dickerson, the UVA Ph.D. student, stressed that, in the aftermath of these tragic events, professors and educators across the country—especially of students who have been historically marginalized—must “consider the ways that racism continues to operate,” and “begin to take action to address it.”

“But even more than what they say, educators should use this moment to reflect on their own practices and what they do to promote equity and inclusion,” Dickerson added. This also includes asking if multiple perspectives, including historically underrepresented voices, are in their classrooms, she said.

Looking forward, experts say the city of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia must now be united in their efforts to be inclusive, safe spaces for diversity.

“There is a place for everyone here including White males,” Martin emphasized, saying UVA stands for justice, equality, and inclusion.

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at tpennamon@diverseeducation.com. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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