William & Mary

Thoughts about two important matters

President Taylor Reveley sent the following message to the campus community Dec. 17, 2014 - Ed.

Dear William & Mary Community,                               

As the first term of William & Mary’s 322nd academic year draws to a close, let me talk with you about two matters as disturbing to our campus as to those of other colleges and universities across the country.  It is important that William & Mary give these matters focused attention.  I imagine they will occasion conversation for many of us with families and friends during the holidays.

 I.

At the beginning of this academic year, I wrote you about creating a task force of faculty, staff and students, charged to scrutinize how William & Mary responds to sexual assault and sexual harassment, with a view to finding ways to do better in our policies, training, protocols, and practices.  We must have a campus where people live, learn, and work while being safe, and feeling safe. We have made progress.  We will keep making progress.  The task force will produce telling results by the end of this academic year.

While we await the task force findings and recommendations: 

We will listen and make sure that reports of sexual assault or sexual harassment receive prompt, effective, and sensitive response.  William & Mary will support those who have suffered, and we will strengthen our culture of concern and responsibility for one another. 

We will pursue the facts with vigor and fairness, ensuring due process for all members of the community.  When a person reports a sexual assault or incidence of sexual harassment, it is in the interest of all concerned for our internal process to move as quickly as possible to determine the facts.  William & Mary is committed to prompt, thorough and fair investigation of reported assaults.

We will stringently enforce our code of conduct and, while respecting requests for confidentiality and privacy, we will encourage the prosecution of criminal acts.  The William & Mary Police Department will conduct timely, thorough investigations.  While William & Mary already has good working relationships with local law enforcement and the Commonwealth’s Attorney, we will strengthen these relationships in the interest of prompt criminal investigation and prosecution.

We will insist on more education and training to ensure our community is equipped to respond effectively.  All members of our community (students, faculty and staff) will complete training on the nature of sexual violence and sexual harassment, the use of bystander intervention as a means of helping prevent it, and ways to assist those in crisis.  

We will lead on this important issue. William & Mary was the first university in Virginia to have a mandatory program about sexual violence as part of freshmen orientation.  We will continue to learn and lead.

These principles constitute our promise to one another.  They guide the efforts of our task force, and they guide each of us in our relations with other members of our community.

II.

The deaths of unarmed black men as a result of police action most recently in Ferguson and Staten Island, followed by grand jury decisions not to indict the officers involved, have shaken confidence in the racial fairness of our justice system.  Whatever the legal merits of the grand jury decisions, they have occasioned despair, often rage, among many people.  They have reminded us that black parents, unlike white parents, feel a need to teach their sons at an early age how to act if stopped by a policeman and caution their sons that the police might threaten their safety whether or not they’ve done anything wrong.  My wife Helen and I have three sons.  We felt no need to teach them to be wary of the police, and we never worried that officers of the law might harm them.  While I believe William & Mary police officers and their local counterparts do their jobs with concern for the wellbeing of all our students, the reality remains that black men, and often other minority men, are wary of the police in ways white men are not. 

Although there has been enormous racial progress in the United States since I was growing up in the 1950s and going to college in the early 1960s, our deep racial wounds have not wholly healed.  As a society we confront “what happens to a dream deferred,” and we need to work harder for a future in which no parents fear unequal treatment by police, unequal protection under the law or unequal standing in our society for their children.

Civility customarily governs conversation and communication at William & Mary. It is especially important that it grace our conversations about racial issues.  Civility is compatible with the forceful expression of political and social views.  Indeed, these views are most effective when they have powerful intellectual content and are expressed in terms that invite other people to listen, not recoil and reflexively reject. A particularly loathsome and ineffective manifestation of incivility is the denigration of individuals or groups by means of unsigned comments on social media in terms meant to wound, not persuade.  Some comments of this sort followed peaceful demonstrations on our campus after the recent grand jury decisions.

Am I suggesting that William & Mary, under the guise of civility, seeks to censor anyone’s exercise of their First Amendments right to free expression?  Of course not.  William & Mary goes to great lengths to ensure that the First Amendment is robustly alive on our campus.  But one reason our community is so strong is that few of our number chose to exercise their First Amendment freedom in ways rich in invective and ad hominem attack, and short on substance and common sense. 

We need to grapple with the issues raised by Ferguson and Staten Island, just as we need to grapple with the issues raised by sexual assault and harassment.  The conversations will not be simple or easy.  People have to feel secure to put their concerns on the table, to ask questions, and to move beyond orthodox formulations.   We all can learn from different perspectives born of different life experiences; we need to share our experiences with one another so they can be understood.  These are the very sorts of inquiries and discussions that a William & Mary education prepares us to undertake. 

Taylor Reveley

December 17, 2014