Twenty‐five years ago, long before I became a college president, I was hurrying to meet with the CEO of an oil company to discuss the possibility of his funding a scholarship for violin students. He was the chairman of a foundation that provided financial support for violin study. We’d never met. But I was head of the School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin -- not exactly riffraff -- and this moment had been months in the making. We said hello, shook hands and sat down to talk.
“I had no idea you were Black,” he said.
I was angry. I took a long breath. This was not at all how I’d imagined our conversation beginning. By this point in my career, I was an accomplished cellist and educator who’d toured internationally and earned Yale University’s first doctorate in cello performance. But now I wondered if I should just cut the conversation short and walk away. Instead, I decided to listen.
The man continued to talk. He told me that he and his wife had attended the Aspen Music Festival for several years, and they rarely saw any string players of color in the orchestra. He wondered aloud about the dearth of string players of color and whether the classical music community could do better in nurturing artists from varied backgrounds. Here was my opening -- after all, I was there on a mission -- so I talked about what UT was trying to do in that regard. I told the CEO about one student in particular, a young woman of color in whom I saw enormous potential for a career in classical music. A few weeks later, the music school had its scholarship. And my student went on to earn a coveted position in the viola section of the Cleveland Orchestra.
I tell this story often as a lesson of sorts. But over the years, students’ reactions to it have changed. These days, their primary response is horror at what they see as the CEO’s unpardonable insensitivity around race. “What specifically do you find offensive?” I ask those who talk with me in my current office at the University of Richmond, where I serve as president. “How would you have responded? How could the CEO have initiated this conversation in manner less offensive to you?” There is no right answer, of course. My sole aim is to spur their thinking, to continue the conversation.
But that has become an increasingly difficult job.
While colleges and universities have traditionally served as safe zones for pondering such questions, the politics and rhetoric now inflaming the nation have spilled over to foment a climate of campus unrest at such a decibel level that even the most innocent inquiry becomes suspect.
To be sure, not all inquiries are innocent. But since 2015, student demonstrations over free speech and racial bias have resulted in faculty firings, resignations and physical assaults on campuses from Connecticut to Washington State. Warring ideas (rather than actual wars) even resulted in a politically motivated shooting.
At Yale University, a firestorm around the mere suggestion that racially insensitive Halloween costumes could occasion discussion -- rather than outright censure -- forced the termination of one professor. The student who’d led the charge was later honored with an award for fostering interracial understanding.
At Evergreen State College in Washington, a teacher who’d questioned an equity policy that asked white students to leave campus for a day and reflect on their racial privilege was hounded by a crowd that gathered outside his classroom, shouting, chanting and demanding his resignation. The threat of violence became credible enough that Evergreen’s leaders eventually decided to hold graduation off campus.
In this swirling cauldron of overheated rhetoric, in 2018, I invited former Bush administration adviser Karl Rove, one of the most polarizing political figures of the past two decades, to sit with me on a dais at the University of Richmond and discuss immigration policy. I’d been prepared for an outcry, and we had plainclothes security details stationed all over the campus. Yet there were no outbursts.
Earlier in the day, Rove had spoken to a class on leadership, where students vigorously challenged his opinions on gun control and the Iraq War. After the talk on immigration, he appeared at a public reception -- laughing, chatting, standing for photos.
Several months later, when Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation came to campus at the invitation of a conservative student group from our law school, some faculty objected, stating that Anderson’s views were “transphobic.” Several LBGTQ students echoed those concerns. But I insisted that we allow him to talk. This was an opportunity for discussion and debate, I felt. I hoped it might nudge students disgusted with Anderson’s positions to marshal arguments proving him wrong. Anyone with a voice can shut down speakers, but meaningful understanding grows every time we open ourselves to someone who is different from us, whether in background or beliefs -- rather than retreating into censorship motivated by fear.
Do not misunderstand me: there is much about the current tenor of rhetoric in this country that offends me. The racially charged riots in Charlottesville, Va. -- just an hour’s drive from my own campus -- were a wake‐up call to the true tenor of white supremacy in America. But I believe we grow when listening to views that differ from our own, even when they anger us. This is much easier said than done. Listening requires patience, discipline, empathy and intellect -- the building blocks of civility.
This insistence on listening -- essential for any musician, of course -- has informed my approach to leadership ever since I entered higher education administration in 1988, at the University of North Carolina. It requires that I silence gut reactions and think before speaking. It has also allowed me a hand in shaping the education of thousands of young people.
Indeed, listening and not immediately reacting angrily has benefited me in significant ways. Not long after my meeting with the oil company CEO who had been shocked by my Blackness, a musician whom I’d long revered invited me to lunch. We all have our icons, and Bryce Jordan, a flutist and musicologist who’d become the first musician appointed president of a large university, was one of mine.
I expected our meeting on that day to be all business as I rode an elevator up to the Headliners Club restaurant, on the top floor of the Chase Tower in Austin, thinking about the university’s upcoming capital campaign and the funding priorities that I wanted to discuss with Jordan. But as we began to eat, he launched into his larger agenda. “It’s obvious to me that you’re going to be a college president,” he said. “Have you thought about what kind of institution you’d like to lead?”
I was caught completely off guard. This was my mentor, after all, a man I’d looked up to for decades, and I had no idea how to answer his question. I tried to sound cool. “Well, probably no place as big as UT. I don’t know, maybe a small liberal arts college?” I said affecting an offhand manner.
That seemed to satisfy Jordan. But throughout the rest of the lunch I was distracted -- tormented, even -- by the question and my unconsidered response. What did I even know about small liberal arts colleges? I walked into the campus bookstore and made straight for the college admission section, the shelves with all those heavy reference books listing schools around the country. And there it was, right in front of me: Colleges That Change Lives by Lauren Pope.
I flipped to the introduction, and my eyes caught on one phrase: “These are colleges that transform the lives of the students who attend them,” it said. In that moment, I knew. This would be my life’s work, the goal shaping every decision going forward from that moment. I wanted to lead an institution that changed lives.
Seven years later I was named to my first presidency, at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., which was nearly all white when I showed up. There, too, I heard comments that might have knocked me off balance. “They want to interview you again,” the executive search consultant told me after I’d become a finalist. “They feel that you’re like Teflon. They don’t believe a Black man could be so unimpeachable. You just seem too perfect.”
I’d long since learned to hush my gut response to such comments, to understand that they sometimes came across in unintended ways. Had I grown angry at the CEO who blurted his ignorance about classical musicians of color, I might never have made it to the lunch with Bryce Jordan. And if I’d never pursued that unexpected conversation about ambition, I might not have found my life’s work.
Being able to work across divides in race, class and politics is, to my mind, a sign of intellectual strength and maturity, and what we in higher education are charged with cultivating. As I’ve learned to navigate those divides in my own life and as a college leader, here are some key lessons I picked up along the way.
Lesson No. 1: Acknowledging an uncomfortable history can lead to conversations that point the way forward. Since 2016, I have become increasingly concerned about the lack of thoughtfulness, integrity and empathy in America’s public discourse. Though the strength of democracy depends upon the ability to have robust discussions -- even disagreements -- without acrimony, young people have few role models in this regard.
On the University of Richmond campus, we’ve attempted to model thoughtful dialogue through a lecture series aptly titled Sharp Viewpoints, which is designed to present competing perspectives on topics crucial to our nation. The objective is to model how thought leaders from opposite sides of a political divide can nonetheless engage in a civil, substantive conversation about the most pressing and polarizing issues of our time. Generally, we’ve done better than speakers on the national stage.
Lesson No. 2: Respond to controversial speech with more speech. I mentioned before how many people called for me to disinvite Ryan Anderson from coming to our campus because they thought his views were transphobic, but I insisted that we allow him to speak. We have a responsibility as educators to help students craft counterarguments and develop the intellectual strength necessary to rebut perspectives they find personally challenging. We do not help them develop those muscles by insulating them from speakers who offend.
Ultimately, Anderson came to campus, and members of our community protested his appearance vigorously but peacefully. Later, one of the protesters, who identified as transgender, engaged Anderson in a one‐on‐one conversation and reflected on the experience in our student newspaper: “Coming into this was really hard for me because it’s really easy to vilify someone when you haven’t met them,” they wrote. “It’s hard to hate someone when you meet them.”
I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that this meeting between a young adult and someone they perceived as an enemy was among the most valuable educational experiences that student had all year. The exchange exemplified my firmly held belief that our campuses can serve as laboratories for democracy -- but not if debate and dissention are silenced.
Lesson No. 3: Slow down. Today’s young intellectuals are likely to believe that free speech conflicts with inclusion -- to the degree that they will try to quash debate when a controversial speaker comes to campus, as happened to Charles Murray at Middlebury College in 2017. In today’s “cancel culture,” marked by an absence of intellectual humility and the capacity to forgive, true diversity turns out to be extremely difficult. No wonder 80 percent of those surveyed by the think tank and research group More in Common said, “Political correctness is a problem in our country.”
The civil rights generation in which I came of age did not honestly confront just how difficult true diversity would be. We made it sound as if all that was required was being “open” to people different from ourselves, when the fact is, real inclusivity can be awkward and uncomfortable. It is not simply about linking arms and singing “Kumbaya”!
It takes work -- in other words, emotional sweat. Students must be intentional about seeking out friends, classmates and mentors from different backgrounds and cultures. For those new to campus, this is particularly difficult because they already feel unsure and it feels easier to acclimate around people whose slang and codes of behavior they already understand. But comfortable as this kind of sorting may be, it is antithetical to the spirit of democracy, whose lifeblood is the energetic exchange of diverse and competing ideas.
For these reasons, I make a point of prodding students about their social networks. Do they consist of people from various backgrounds and academic disciplines, or are they filled only with people of the same beliefs? If the latter, I challenge them to reach out to a classmate who is different -- whether culturally, politically or religiously -- and get to know them by asking questions and listening, really listening, to the response. The purpose is not to hone debate skills nor to lay blame; such approaches change nothing. And we are a society in dire need of change.
The University of Richmond’s goal of becoming a skilled intercultural community does not mean that we expect to become a utopia, immune from racist or xenophobic incidents. The goal is merely to ensure that we have the capability, as a community, to deal with social disruption.
So now, when talking with students, I urge them to strive toward a deeper understanding of why individuals with different views think and believe as they do. Those conversations sometimes lead to bruised feelings. But I tell my mentees that this is exactly how they will develop the energy, civility and substance to navigate differences with power. In the process, their own beliefs get tested and refined, and that will better prepare them for engaged citizenship. I strongly believe that our entire country could benefit from a similar approach.