‘Looking Backward, Looking Forward’

Rotunda at night with all of its lights on as the sky is cloudy

Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications

The following message was delivered on June 3 from University of Virginia President Jim Ryan to the University community:


To the University community,

On Sunday, I offered some brief reflections on social media regarding the death of George Floyd. Those reflections and that medium were inadequate to the topic, which is why I am writing you today.

Let me start with the obvious but nonetheless essential. What happened to George Floyd – his callous and indifferent killing at the hands of a white police officer – was immoral and sickening. As Dean Risa Goluboff wrote recently, it might be tempting also to say it was “shocking,” but that wrongly suggests it was surprising. The recent and senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many others before them whose lives were cut short demonstrate otherwise. This sort of violence against black people, including at the hands of those who are supposed to protect all of us, is sadly all too familiar and stretches back not just decades, but centuries, through the Civil Rights Era, Jim Crow, Reconstruction, and slavery.

And let me apologize. When I wrote last weekend, I felt deep despair. Despair for the treatment experienced by so many people of color in this country – not just by police, but by every segment of society, including higher education, including here at UVA. Despair for the current state of our country, which seems to be unraveling before our eyes. Despair for the continued racial inequities across a wide range of contexts – education, criminal justice, health care, housing, jobs – that are still there, as is the systemic racism that underlies those inequities.

But in my own despair, in indulging in it, I failed to express the genuine sorrow I feel for the unequal and unfair burden that I know our black students, faculty, and staff carry with them, not just through this episode, but through every day. George Floyd’s death is just another sharp reminder that far too many people of color in this country live a life that is less secure – less safe – than white people, in part because of encounters with police officers who inflicted harm on people they were meant to protect. As a white parent of four kids, I have not had to have the conversation that so many black parents have had with theirs, cautioning them about how to behave around those who are meant to protect all of us. For all of that, I am truly sorry – both for that burden and for failing to acknowledge it.

And I know it’s time to act and not simply to despair or rest on faith. Over the weekend, the Division for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UVA posted a powerful statement from a group of faculty, staff, and community members reflecting on the latest tragedies. In it, they wrote:

We must continue to do the hard work that will help ensure that our future is different, more just, more accepting, and more inclusive. The future we envision is one in which the devaluing of life is no longer accepted, and where bigotry no longer contaminates our systems and institutions, burdening some community members much more than others.

I couldn’t agree more, and I am committed to that work. It’s in many ways why I came (back) here.

Through the hard work of many students, faculty, and staff – not to mention the persistent advocacy of alumni and community members – UVA is a better place today than it was a decade ago, or the decade before that. But there is more work to do in order for UVA to look more like the state and country in which we live; in order for UVA to be a trusted neighbor to the Charlottesville region; and in order for all students, faculty, and staff to have their voices and their presence equally valued, respected, and included in their everyday lives on Grounds.

I have tried to champion some of that work in my two years as president, and some of it – like increasing student and faculty diversity and being a good neighbor to the Charlottesville region – is in our strategic plan. To complement and push that work forward, today I have asked three colleagues to lead a racial equity task force: Ian Solomon, the Dean of the Batten School of Public Policy; Kevin McDonald, our Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and Barbara Brown Wilson, a faculty member in the School of Architecture and the faculty director of The Equity Center. This group will convene with students, faculty, and staff to gather together the growing list of recommendations, suggestions, and demands regarding the subject of racial equity at UVA – and to solicit others – and will send me a concrete and prioritized set of recommendations about the best steps forward, including actions that can be implemented right away.

Eleven days after I returned to UVA to begin as president, I spoke at an event to mark and remember the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist march through Grounds the year before. As I said then and will say again here:

I stand here today as an ally. I am surely an imperfect one, which is to say I am human, like all of you. I will disappoint some of you for doing too much and others for doing too little, some for going too fast and others for not going fast enough. But I know in my heart where I would like to go, and that is the place where our aspirations and our realities finally intersect. I know that many of you, so many of you, would like to get there as well.

I look forward to our continued, imperfect journey together.


James E. Ryan
University of Virginia

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