T.J. Zepp

During a November 1 forum at Alumni Hall, Board of Visitors Rector Frank “Rusty” Conner III (Col ’78, Law ’81) said University of Virginia officials had believed that protests by white supremacists in August would be similar to countless others that had taken place on Grounds over the years.

“We’ve been a University that has been very accommodating, very welcoming to protests, assemblages and the like—simply because of the First Amendment and free-speech considerations,” Conner said. “What we realized very quickly was that was naïve. … That was not a First-Amendment assemblage. That was an assemblage to weaponize the First Amendment for intimidation and terror purposes—and we were not agile to adjust to that on the spot.”

Conner’s remarks were part of an event put on by the Alumni Association and the University Advancement’s Office of Engagement aimed at educating community members about the University’s response to the events of Aug. 11 and 12 on Grounds and in greater Charlottesville.

Board of Visitors Rector Frank “Rusty” Conner III (Col ’78, Law ’81) T.J. Zepp
Conner was part of a 6-member panel moderated by Law School Dean Risa Goluboff and included Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Lampkin (Educ ’86), Board of Visitors Student Member Bryanna Miller (Col ’18), Assistant Dean and Professor Kirt von Daacke (Col ’97) and Hoos Against Hate Founder Greg Jackson Jr. (Col ’07).

The panel spoke for an hour and then took questions. Nearly 200 people were in attendance, with roughly another 700 viewing online.

Goluboff said the Deans Working Group she chairs has asked free-speech experts within the Law School to look at policies at other public universities. “Are there ways that we can protect the people of the University while still protecting robust free-speech rights?” she said. “As a University, it is a crucial part of our mission to have robust dialogue and to be a place where speakers of all different viewpoints get to talk. No one wants that to change, but there have to be questions asked about what our policies look like. … That’s being explored as we speak.”

Goluboff told the audience that her group’s primary focus the past two months has been safety and security.

To that end, Conner said, a policy has been revised to designate the Lawn as a “facility,” which under state law gives the University greater discretion to regulate the premises, including banning firearms. Another policy regarding open flames was turned into a regulation, which Conner said would allow state and city police to enforce it more practically.

A consulting firm headed by the former head of security for the NFL was retained to assess the University’s safety measures for big events, such as the Bicentennial Launch Celebration and football games. “Clearly, if you go to a football game today, you can see the results of those recommendations, which we know is off-putting to [some] folks,” said Conner, referring to a new clear bag policy, “but it is part of ensuring that we provide the highest level of safety that we can for everyone.”

Conner said the University is awaiting recommendations from another firm that specializes in safety on college campuses.

In the aftermath of the events, Jackson said his alumni group got feedback from students that the University community wasn’t on the same page. “They felt like they were in one room discussing strategy and the staff and faculty were in another room, but that’s not what Thomas Jefferson was about when he started this University,” Jackson said. “Working together as one is something we want to encourage and hopefully hold the University accountable to.”

Board of Visitors Student Member Bryanna Miller (Col ’18) T.J. Zepp
Student leader Miller said the events have brought diverse communities closer. “We now see Jewish students, black students, undocumented students, international students coming together around a set of proposals for the University in a way that hasn’t happened in the past,” she said.

During the question-and-answer session, a parent of an alum expressed concern about the University’s reputation abroad. Conner, citing a decrease in the number of international applications to the Darden School of Business, admitted it has taken a hit. “I think everyone at UVA absolutely cringes when we see those images of the tiki torches surrounding the Rotunda,” he said. “It will take time to overcome those images, there’s no doubt about it.”