In August, when I became the University’s eighth president, I joined a community whose culture and traditions are unique among American universities. Part of what attracted me to the job is the distinctive quality of the student experience here. A clearly defined group of core values characterizes life on these Grounds. Honor and ethics, leadership and service, diversity, and collaboration in the pursuit of knowledge—these are the foundational values on which our community is built. These values permeate every aspect of student and faculty life. By living these values, our students learn to become ethical, engaged public citizens. Thomas Jefferson was a great believer in the power of education to improve the human condition. In an 1816 letter to the French writer and economist Pierre du Pont de Nemours, he wrote, “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.” Educating young people remains our main order of business today, but we know that improving the human condition involves more than classroom learning. We seek also to instill a sense of personal responsibility and decency in our students as part of their natural growth and maturation.
The University’s longstanding systems of honor and self-governance help create and strengthen a school-wide community of trust. The Honor Code did not originate with Mr. Jefferson. It was created by students, for students. Within the dictates of the Honor System, they assume the right to be trusted in their academic work and in their personal behavior. In exchange for this right, they are responsible for enforcing their own prohibitions against lying, cheating and stealing. This concept of responsibility extends beyond the classroom to social situations, activities in sororities and fraternities, and virtually every facet of student life.
After the tragic death of Yeardley Love last spring, our students recommitted themselves to the reinforcing principles of individual and mutual responsibility. This fall they launched the Let’s Get Grounded campaign to encourage all of our students to be vigilant, to recognize dangerous behavior that threatens other students, and to react decisively to troubling situations. They are holding training sessions to help students become more alert and active in their communities. The student initiative generated a further response in terms of an effort among the wider community to understand the implications of taking responsibility for ourselves and for our community.
On September 24 we held a University-wide Day of Dialogue. The day’s events featured frank discussions about who we are—our strengths, our shortcomings and our individual responsibility as members of this University community and other, larger communities. We did not devise any grand solutions to the world’s problems on September 24—and we did not expect to—but we began an honest conversation that may one day lead to solutions. The discussions were meant to be the start of a dialogue that will continue throughout this semester and beyond.
During the Day of Dialogue’s discussion period, we posed the question, “Am I my brother’s or sister’s keeper?” Beyond assuming individual responsibility for our own actions, does each of us also have a personal obligation to ensure that our friends and colleagues avoid trouble and suffering? This is a complex question that raises additional questions concerning privacy and the limitations of intervention. We live in a world of ambiguities. Harmless situations may appear dangerous at first glance; dangerous situations may appear harmless in the beginning. It may be difficult to know when to act, and how. In spite of the considerable uncertainties, we believe that community members have a fundamental responsibility to keep an eye out for each other—and not to keep silent or look the other way if trouble arises.
The twin issues of personal and community responsibility are closely connected to the issue of safety on Grounds. Our faculty and staff members and the University police will make every effort to keep the Grounds as safe and secure as possible for our students. But we cannot foresee or control everything that happens. Our students need to take responsibility for their own personal safety and for the safety of their classmates. A student leaving a bar or restaurant to walk home from the Corner in the dark, alone, in the wee hours of the morning, is not being responsible. Our students need to understand that they are not invincible, that trouble lurks in the world, that vigilance is a necessary part of adult behavior. Charlottesville is safer than most cities in America, but it’s not perfectly safe. Our students need to realize that, and act accordingly.
As we follow up on the Day of Dialogue and students carry on their Get Grounded work, we realize that we are not alone among American universities in our effort to create a more caring community. Rutgers University has launched a two-year, university-wide dialogue called Project Civility whose aim is to cultivate a more civil, caring atmosphere on that campus. American University has a civility campaign entitled Civitas designed to highlight the connection between individual conduct and the overall quality of campus life. Other universities have issued campus-wide calls for civility and compassion in reaction to individual acts of hate or abuse.
The broad scope of the discussion is a testament to the urgency of the message. To build a culture of caring on the University’s Grounds, we need to understand our obligations to one another as fellow human beings, and to act on those obligations. Those of us in this University community are members of an extended family that includes students, faculty and staff, alumni, parents and friends. Let’s be a strong, caring family in which we look out for one another. The community of trust can also be a community of caring.