Why Charlottesville?

Robert M. O’Neil, a former president of the University of Virginia, considers why the protests occurred in that university town.

August 14, 2017
 
 
Getty Images/NURPhoto
The rally at Charlottesville

When a group of angry and rock-throwing white supremacists descended on the city of Charlottesville on the afternoon and evening of Aug. 11, 2017, the community and the University of Virginia seemed less than fully prepared. Although there had been at least one earlier skirmish, the full force and fury of these events could not fully have been anticipated. By the end of the next day, a car had killed at least one bystander, while many others were injured -- some severely -- not to mention two state troopers died instantly when their helicopter crashed during surveillance of the conflagration.

Yet many observers, in Virginia and elsewhere, might well have anticipated a “perfect storm” on that particular weekend. Local folks with long memories could, for example, recall that Charlottesville was of the few communities in the Old Dominion where the public schools were not only segregated in the late 1950s but also actually closed by government decree. Geographically and otherwise, Charlottesville seemed a prime prospect for such a massive and violent invasion as occurred last weekend. Other rural academic communities -- Radford, Harrisonburg and even Williamsburg -- appeared far less likely primed for such an onslaught from racist radicals.

Then there remains the anomalous role of the University of Virginia, clearly the most selective and academically prestigious of the commonwealth’s range of public institutions, including two historically black institutions. For starters, we should note that the grounds of the University of Virginia -- never “campus” (per Thomas Jefferson) -- are nearly a mile west of downtown Charlottesville. Moreover, almost uniquely in Virginia, city and county are separate political entities; the seat of Albemarle County government and its courts constitute a two-block enclave entirely surrounded by the city of Charlottesville.

Thus, odd though it may seem, city and county have separate (albeit collaborative) police, fire and other government services. To compound the confusion, most of the UVA grounds (having been annexed before 1940) are within the county, although many Charlottesville city streets border the university’s core, and newer post-World War II buildings like the law and graduate business schools lie within the county.

Meanwhile, the brutal melee of the past weekend occurred almost entirely in downtown Charlottesville, and especially in two nearby parks where statues of Confederate leaders (notably Robert E. Lee) remain in contentious litigation between opposing groups that either seek to remove or preserve such memorials. Only briefly did the skirmish directly affect the UVA grounds -- specifically during an encounter that mildly tarnished the statue of university’s founder that faces the lawn -- the historic core of Jefferson’s elegant structures.

An attempt to answer “Why Charlottesville?” necessarily takes us well beyond architecture. The University of Virginia is in so many dimensions a singular institution. It was, for example, the first truly secular university in the country, reflecting the Jefferson commitment to separation of church and state. Its historic student honor system remains student run and continues to rely on a single sanction. Yet in other curious respects, UVA lagged well behind its peers. When the major research institutions in 1903 combined to create the Association of American Universities, UVA was omitted only because it had not yet chosen a president, and indeed was effectively lacking in senior administration for nearly three-quarters of a century. At the same time, the pervasive myth of “just a small Southern all-male college” belies such indicia as the top-25 ranking of UVA’s widely published English department.

We might also recall that Jefferson, in the penultimate year of his life, admitted an entering class of mainly Albemarle County farm boys, who immediately and disastrously clashed with the exotic faculty he had chosen from European campuses. Just before his death, the founder crafted a far better match, recruiting among others the nation’s first truly international students.

Whether or not the hordes of ranting white supremacists and other violent protesters were fully aware of the close proximity between Charlottesville and the university must for the moment remain something of a mystery. What we do know, even now, is that the UVA administration has continued to steer a perilous and patient course. President Teresa Sullivan has consistently reached out within and beyond the university community, as exemplified in her thoughtful, wise and cogent presidential statements during the past several days. Her imprint on the university as it nears its bicentennial is truly remarkable. As the university’s first female leader, she has weathered an exceptional series of challenges -- starting with a hostile rector (or board chair) who attempted to dismiss her. Other especially difficult administrative trials, including a Rolling Stone article, ultimately discredited, that alleged a student was gang-raped at a university fraternity, followed.

Despite Jefferson’s abiding belief that he and his successors -- Madison, Monroe and other eminent statesmen who followed -- needed no administration (much less a president), the university has been well served by the eight of us who have now held that office. Of that number, most have been academics, most notably Edgar Shannon and Frank Hereford, and later John Casteen (who served two decades), and now, of course, Teresa Sullivan. The one notable exception to the pattern was Colgate Darden, who served first as governor of Virginia before becoming president of the university. When asked which of the two roles he found the more challenging, he responded immediately. “Usually I would have said a contentious faculty would have posed the greater challenge. But throughout World War II, I was one of a handful of people who knew the precise location of barriers that would have kept German submarines out of Chesapeake Bay.”

A final irony bears note. Had Charlottesville followed the splendid example of Richmond and erected a Monument Avenue statue of Arthur Ashe -- the first African-American tennis player selected to the U.S. Davis Cup team and the only black man to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open -- things might well have evolved quite differently. Since this revered tennis champion and I sat beside each other during quarterly board meetings of the Commonwealth Fund, I recall a poignant moment. Ashe and his high school partner had gone to Charlottesville hoping to enter the impending UVA tennis tournament. The coach at the time explained to the boys that all slots were full, but he assured them that if they returned the next year, he would include them in an otherwise all-white roster. They persevered, and the coach was good to his word. The rest was history, tragically cut short by the fatal blood transfusion that ended Ashe’s life far too soon.

In a very different vein, one might now ask whether a different outcome could have changed the course of recent history. Specifically, one might wish that, along with Lee and Davis, we could have celebrated Ashe.

Bio

Robert M. O’Neil is a former president of the University of Virginia and of the University of Wisconsin System, former director of the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Initiative, and former general counsel of the American Association of University Professors. He is currently a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities.

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