How Charlottesville matters to higher education

In my Aug. 22 State of the University address, I added my condolences and support to the statements of many campus presidents and others reacting to the recent violence in Charlottesville.

“Virginia Wesleyan continues to be — and will always be — an inclusive community, one devoted to personal excellence and societal achievement,” I said. “We stand with all Americans who oppose bigotry, who fight for justice, and who seek to do God’s work in abundance.”

Of course we do. No other position is possible in the aftermath of the display of intolerance and violence visited upon Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. The events were shocking, reminding us in higher education that not even our treasured campus environs are immune from a torch-lighted procession of hatemongers.

As our students return for the new academic year, Virginia Wesleyan plans additional communications and programs in response to Charlottesville. As a longtime college president, however, I have learned that although a campus community may respect official pronouncements, it is programmatic, institutionalized change that marks true progress.

And that’s the kind of change that is hardest to bring about.

If the Vietnam-fueled, social, cultural and political convulsions of the 1960s and early 1970s taught us educators anything, it is that institutions tend to react more quickly to immediate events than they do to long-term societal trends.

The underlying causes of dissatisfaction and unrest can go untreated for years. Student protests against the war in Southeast Asia and counter-cultural trends did help to bring about some needed change at our colleges and universities — leading to greater influence by students in institutional governance, curricular reforms and reaffirmation of guarantees of academic freedom.

The protests of the 1960s demonstrated, ultimately, that our colleges and universities were resilient institutions, remaining focused on their missions and educational delivery despite discord that challenged their leadership, operating premises and historical underpinnings.

But campuses are trendy, with short memories. Student revolution in the 1960s was succeeded in the late 1970s by a more self-centered, cultural narcissism (the “Me Generation”), in the 1980s by a degree of social complacency and in the 1990s by a new form of revolution — the information revolution.

In recent years, rampant political correctness has served as a kind of blank check to protesters, permitting and encouraging them to speak out against whatever personally offends them, and to hold their institutions accountable for it.

Social media has replaced the bullhorn. Boundaries of propriety that a college or university could expect, even as late as the 1990s, have diminished as society’s sense of entitlement has increased and, on campuses, the idea of the student as choosy consumer of collegiate goods and services has grown.

Some faculty members are reluctant to inject partisan views into the classroom for fear of denying students a safe haven from distasteful truths of history or uncomfortable political perspectives. Controversial commencement speakers are routinely rejected as unfit, their invitations rescinded.

Some commentators decry the hazards of liberal thinking by students and professors, even as most administrators, faculty and student leaders I know seek civil debate, consensus and orderly progress in what remains a largely conservative higher-education system.

Over the long term, our campuses succeed best when they find effective ways to work across the landscape, encouraging open forums where dissent is respected and civic engagement that unites what students learn in the classroom with what awaits them outside it. Such progression takes time and patience, as well as total institutional commitment to the broader, lasting goals and achievements of social justice.

We want our students to respond to the events in Charlottesville, which were close by and disturbing to us in Hampton Roads and throughout America. I would worry more if our young scholars let it all pass without comment or reaction. But soon enough, they will cross the graduation stage and focus on life’s other imperatives.

I want more for our institutions — committed, ongoing advocacy that will endow our efforts and dialogue for years to come and lead to more lasting change.

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Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Previously, he served as President at Bethany College in West Virginia (2007-15), Wesley College in Delaware (1997-2007) and Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee (1991-97).

He wrote this for the August 29 issue of The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)

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