Forgiveness and Healing
by KEN ELZINGA, Economics Professor
I am an unlikely person to speak at this rally. By nature, I am not drawn to demonstrations or collective action of this sort. In addition, as a person who for many years has served on the board of trustees of another college, I have great respect for the principle that the board hires and fires the president of a college or university. A board of trustees (or a Board of Visitors, in our situation) has only a few responsibilities. Selecting the president is one of them.
But I believe our Board of Visitors made a mistake in calling for Terry Sullivan's resignation. From my perspective, Terry Sullivan's performance as president of this institution has been exemplary.
I have been told that I have taught more students at UVA than any other faculty member in the history of this school: around 40,000 students. I cannot say I have heard from all 40,000 of them, but I can say that every communication I have received from former students has been one of disappointment at Terry Sullivan's forced resignation and desirous of her reinstatement.
UVA has had only eight presidents. I have served under five of them. It would be inappropriate for me to rank the five by some metric of performance. But I will say this: in every circumstance I have encountered Terry Sullivan, whether it has been at a lunch at Carr's Hill, or speaking before hundreds of alumni, or the winsome manner in which she attends and watches a UVA wrestling match, or listening to her speak to an audience of faculty, or her compassion in caring for the parents and grandparents of a beloved student of mine who died from a fall off the roof of the Physics Building—whatever the circumstance—Terry Sullivan strikes me as the complete package.
I hope the Board of Visitors is able to realize that a mistake has been made, to admit this, and remedy the mistake. It is not easy for any of us to admit we made a mistake. I can tell you that, as a board member at another college, it is not easy for a board to admit error and walk back from a mistake.
While I teach economics, I think of the world in theological terms. I have tried to look at this event through a biblical lens. The Scriptures are all about atonement, grace and forgiveness.
I hope the Board of Visitors will atone for its mistake and reinstate Terry Sullivan. If the Board were to do so, it would not diminish the Board or its authority. Just the opposite: the Board of Visitors would be enhanced. This is the great paradox: if the Board were to reinstate Terry Sullivan, most of us would come away with a renewed appreciation for the Board—because its members demonstrated the courage to walk back from a mistake and atone for an error.
If the Board were to reinstate Terry Sullivan, the virtue required of us—faculty, students, staff and alumni—is that of grace toward the Board of Visitors, not condemnation. Part of the genius of this University is that, as Mr. Jefferson instructed us, this is to be a place where (in his words) we "tolerate error." So more than any other institution, we should "tolerate error" graciously and when error is corrected, to accept this with gratitude.
And may I mention one thing that we must ask of Terry Sullivan if she is reinstated—and this also is not something done easily. To flourish as president, she must be able to forgive those who sought her resignation.
Very few people can demonstrate, outwardly and in their hearts, true forgiveness. It is not easy to do. But the Bible says it is not supposed to be easy. Recrimination and revenge: they're easy. That is why true forgiveness is so noteworthy when it happens.
Forgiveness, and then healing, is what our University needs at this time. Not lawsuits; not commissions; not investigations; not years of ill will. Those of us at this rally must model our forgiveness so there can be healing. And I believe Terry Sullivan, with all her administrative skills, is the kind of person who can forgive. In closing, I'll cite one of the last speeches given by Robert F. Kennedy. Paraphrasing words from the Gospel of John written above the columns of Old Cabell Hall, Kennedy said "For today, as it was in the beginning, it is the truth that makes us free."
The truth of the matter is that all of us regret the forced resignation of Terry Sullivan, all of us respectfully ask the Board to atone for its action, and all of us are prepared to respond with gratitude, forgiveness, and renewed enthusiasm to be part of UVA.