As someone who has dedicated over 40 years of his professional life to building civically responsible communities through education, I never thought that I would witness torches being carried through the campus of the University of Virginia — an institution that, like Wagner, was founded upon the principles of educating a citizenry for democracy.
I, like so many of you, watched with deep sadness and disappointment as this torch-bearing mob of white supremacists chanted vitriolic slogans like “White Lives Matter,” “You will not replace us” or “Jews will not replace us,” and “blood and soil,” an especially insidious phrase because of its ties to Nazi ideology. The white supremacists marched through UVA’s historic rotunda, the academic heart of the campus, whose design was meant to reflect the principle that learning is a lifelong process, and that interaction between faculty and students is vital to the pursuit of knowledge.
Wagner College has always been a community committed to the pursuit of knowledge, embracing the fact that we learn within the context of our lives, which is why since 1935 we have advocated for religious and ethnic inclusivity. Our students have always been agents of social change. In 1963, they rode buses to Washington, D.C., to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. More recently, they participated in rallies for immigrant and women’s rights.
We are living in a treacherous moment in history, but I want to affirm our commitment to a community that challenges its citizens to participate in reasoned, civil debates. We may not always agree with one another, but we must maintain respect for each other.
And while we support everyone’s freedom of speech, we will not tolerate hate speech, which denies the humanity of others.
Like many campuses, we are faced with the challenge of supporting open discourse while building respectful communities. As our nation begins to move beyond the pains of Charlottesville, we have to confront the peculiar history of slavery in the United States. In standing up to the hate that we witnessed in the eyes of the people who bore torches at UVA, we have to listen to the voices of the communities who were disenfranchised by the creation of institutions as old as our Republic. Through our work on and off campus, we must dismantle systems of inequity and stand as the beacon light of hope in the face of hatred and bigotry.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia.