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The role of a university in a time of crisis

I have been contemplating the role of a university, especially in times of great crisis, this last week of May 2020 when the right words are so hard to come by. At William & Mary, one important role is continually to call ourselves to awareness of our history, in the present. As the great American writer James Baldwin taught us, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

None of us can ignore the turmoil, the heartbreak, of the racial divisions in our country — a cascade of grief for Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd has brought it to the fore. The racism and injustice we continue to witness bring grievous hurt to our communities. It comes to us at a moment when so many in this nation and the world are vulnerable, intensifying the loss and weariness of pandemic. We are facing again the legacy of our country’s founding, that did not recognize the full humanity of all peoples. African Americans in our communities are asking, in this moment, do you recognize my full humanity? We do. We will face this with you.

A critical role of a university at moments of crisis is to rededicate ourselves to the propositions that sustain a pluralistic democracy. We recognize that we are still far from realizing them for all: fairness, respect for the human dignity of others, evidence-based argument, scientific discovery, the pursuit of opportunity and safety and equal justice under the law.

As a public university in Virginia, dedicated to the perpetuity of democratic institutions, it has never been more important that we commit ourselves to change that advances these values. We must find it within ourselves to look for hope. And as we face unspeakable acts, we must be there to help lift one another’s heavy hearts — so we can study together, learn and work together, toward a more humane and free world. The past week’s events demonstrate how much farther we have to go.

As we search for paths forward during these uncertain times, the role of a university provides some clarity and William & Mary’s core values of belonging, respect and integrity provide direction. The diverse communities and perspectives we convene — to grapple with our imperfections and our legacies of inequality — are our best hope for empowering those who study here to build our future together.

— Katherine A. Rowe
President, William & Mary