The Collegian
Friday, February 23, 2024

OPINION: Coming Together in Difficult Times

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

These past few weeks have been challenging for many of us at the University of Richmond. On top of managing the daily stressors of the pandemic, we’ve faced a series of moments that have wounded the heart and spirit of our community. 

Our community has been confronted with multiple offenses this semester -- from news of a sexual assault resulting in multiple charges, to anti-Semitic and white supremacist symbols found on campus, to the most recent harm a student experienced during a listening session of the Naming Principles Commission. And these are some of the publicly reported moments we’ve heard about. Sometimes, for reasons of privacy or confidentiality, or other barriers to reporting, other harmful incidents may not make campus news. 

Reflecting upon such moments has been difficult for me, and I’m guessing for many of us -- students, faculty, staff, alumni and administrators alike. 

And yet, there is grace and perseverance around us. Whether it’s the ongoing activism of the Black Student Coalition, the recent silent march in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault or the vibrancy of our student government, our students have been exceptional. Or, if we look at the work of the Office of the Chaplaincy, the Center for Civic Engagement, the Center for Awareness, Response and Education, Counseling and Psychological Services or the new Student Center for Equity and Inclusion, we also see ample evidence that this is a courageous campus. The University Faculty Senate has held a space for reflection and deliberation. We have a new campus president about whom many of us are hopeful. In short, we have an abundance of compassionate and concerned souls around us. 

We are stronger together. Our challenge is to move forward collectively when we confront the next occurrence of sexual and interpersonal violence or that next incident of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism or some other form of structural violence on campus. 

My hope -- my wish -- is that the next time we face a series of crises on campus, we do so together, more fully and openly. Here are some initial thoughts.  

Gather, pause, reflect and listen. I suggest we gather, pause, reflect and listen more deeply as a community when the next crisis hits. This might look like an assembly at the E. Claiborne Robins Stadium for those wishing to attend or a gathering in the Alice Haynes Room. This would help us normalize a space for greater conversation, dialogue and sharing -- and for more of us to be seen, heard and validated. Here, the intention would be for all members of our campus community to have a chance to gather -- from the custodians who clean our buildings, to the students who fill our classrooms, to the staff who support our departments, to the senior administrators who oversee daily operations. Until now, it has been exceedingly rare for us to come together as a campus community across our divisions of constituency, identity or rank. Yet, collective gathering can be healing for the soul and form the foundation of deeper dialogue. 

Cultivate a campus culture of contrition. Sometimes, we publicly say the wrong thing and then privately regret what was said. So, it’s rare to hear the words “I am truly sorry,” “I was wrong” or “I made a mistake” uttered with vulnerability in our campus discourse.  Apologizing authentically to someone who has been hurt or wronged can be needed to help move forward. It can also lead to deeper conversations in which we acknowledge our accountability and the impact of our words and deeds. It can be profoundly difficult to share a space with another human being if they have not admitted to the harm or the wrongs they have caused. We cannot be a safe community if the offenses we have experienced remain in silence, unacknowledged. 

Forgive one another. Forgiveness might be one of the most challenging things to do in the human experience, but I feel we need it now more than ever on campus. Suppose we could somehow nurture and cultivate the seeds of asking for forgiveness when we make and hopefully admit and own up to our mistakes. In that case, we could gradually start to reset the tone and even the spirit of our community. Of course, if and when the law has been broken and a crime has been committed, forgiveness may not be that simple and may not be warranted until there has been some kind of legal justice. And some forms of violence can be so dehumanizing that forgiveness can be the last thing on anyone’s mind. But, gradually growing a campus mindset of forgiveness could help lead to transformative justice. 

Treat others with compassion and dignity. I’ve noticed over the years, especially when people get hurt, that we fall into a narrative of us versus them. Ideally -- and this is a lot to ask for -- we could look at one another with eyes of compassion, even toward those who might be structurally in a more powerful position. I’m often reminded of a philosophy Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated and followed throughout the Civil Rights Movement. He suggested we treat the oppressor in a spirit of love -- not in a romantic sense -- but the spirit of agape. For Dr. King, agape is “the spirit of God operating in the human heart.” It is “understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill.”

Agape can help us find common ground and deepen the dialogue. This doesn’t mean that we should refrain from activism (we need more of that), or that thoughtful and lasting structural reforms are not needed (they desperately are), or that don’t need more truth-telling on campus (far too many voices are silent), but that, in the process, we engage one another with full hearts -- whether we are board members, senior leaders, students, faculty, staff or alumni. That means board members should treat students with compassion, just as faculty should do with staff, or administrators with faculty. 

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Uplift and look after one another. From my experience, in a time of crisis, I’ve seen a campus culture that tends to put an overwhelming burden on a handful of persons, or even just one person, to do something. “That’s their job description -- not mine,” the thinking sometimes goes.  And yet, wouldn’t it be better if we could share that burden collectively? If we could uplift and look after one another and hold a broader sense of community? If we could “Protect Our Web” in this way? I realize we’re all so swamped, but when some type of violence happens on campus, my hope is that we might seek a space to name, address and look deeply together at that issue. For me, that’s what a real Spider-Web might look like -- a myriad of connected souls holding the tension together, transparently and with grace, radiating outward. 

Like so many of you, I care a great deal about our campus community. We have a gorgeous, beautiful campus with brilliant students and wonderful colleagues. We have a nearly $3 billion endowment. And yet, sometimes -- oftentimes this past academic year -- I have felt a kind of poverty of spirit. It can be a challenge to feel fully seen, heard and included on campus. At times, belonging here may feel impossible. And morally, sometimes I feel our campus is bankrupt. 

In moving forward, I hope we can find more shared spaces for conversation and dialogue, admit our mistakes when we are wrong, forgive one another when possible, treat one another with compassion and dignity and uplift one another. When I have candid conversations with my students, it is clear they are very disappointed with the status quo. They want better. They need better. They demand it. 

We have the seeds to be the best liberal arts college in the nation if we can embrace more of our collective vulnerability. Collective vulnerability, I feel, leads the way for the structural, systemic, sustained change that is sorely needed. 

And then, perhaps, we may one day thrive. 

Monti Narayan Datta,, is an Associate Professor of Political Science. 

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