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On this Independence Day 2012, here in this church across the street from Thomas Jefferson’s university, it is especially right and our bounden duty that we remember the Declaration of Independence he wrote.
I have often thought that if we cannot remember Jefferson's gift of words here, in Charlottesville, we may well forget it elsewhere.
But what we do this day must be more than about remembering a political document crafted in a fierce struggle against the most powerful nation on earth at the time, Great Britain.
We must also remember that Jefferson and his peers hoped and prayed that a better world could and would emerge from their struggle. They did not write the Declaration as a time capsule to make the world stand still.
They, like the writer of Hebrews, desired “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”
They knew, like the writer of the Book of Deuteronomy, that they once had been “strangers in a strange land,” and that now as a free people, they could not turn their backs on the strangers who would reach these shores also desiring a better country.
They knew this country was unfinished, incomplete, imperfect. And they knew they were unfinished, incomplete, imperfect human beings.
The evil of slavery perplexed them, even corrupted them. It was the original sin of our country. Much bloodshed would be spilled over that single issue alone. Reason would not always prevail.
Yet, for Jefferson, the foundation of a free people had everything to do with reason and the ideal upon which he built this university a few yards from this church.
He did not design it as vocational school, though certainly he hoped people would find their vocation. Nor was it to be a religious school, though he struggled to find his own understanding of God in the biblical texts.
To be sure, Jefferson looked upon the university he built as a place of free inquiry and learning. But it was more than even that. Education was not merely for the sake of an abstract notion of academic freedom, as important as that is, but because education would form the foundation of how a free people would govern themselves.
He saw this University as an essential cornerstone to being a free people. It was meant, from the start, to be public.
A free people – you and I -- need to be able to think, to ask questions, to test theories and doctrines. We need to discover the facts and nuances about science, history, culture, politics – all that makes up the universe in which we live. A free people cannot remain in the shadows of ignorance and pretend to be free.
We have recently witnessed an unprecedented leadership crisis at the University of Virginia. It is tempting to cast it as a local power struggle between good guys and bad. But it is more than that. The struggle we are still witnessing is for the heart and soul of public higher education not just here but everywhere in this land.
Will public higher education remain open for all people who can enter, regardless of race, wealth and social status? Or will the doors close to all but an elite or lucky few before we even notice that they shut?
The pressures – financial, technological and political – are enormous on public higher education everywhere, and are not unique to the University of Virginia.
What made the last few weeks remarkable were not the issues at stake, but how a board of trustees – here called the “Board of Visitors” – essentially hit the panic button, fired its president, then unfired its president. That could have happened anywhere.
I do not mean suggest that the Board of Visitors was embarking on a mission to close the doors of the University of Virginia in some kind of conspiracy. Rather, what happened in recent days – and what still could happen – is more slippery and more insidious.
The doors could close a few inches at a time, as well-meaning trustees in public colleges and universities try to make due with fewer and fewer resources for more and more people who are qualified but cannot get in. That, in fact, is already happening at public universities across this country.
The University of Virginia is the very first of these public universities, and it is therefore a bellwether for all of them, whether here or on the other side of this continent at the University of California, Los Angeles where I proudly call myself an alum.
Jefferson’s university has been intertwined with the struggle for freedom in this nation since its founding, extending through the Civil War, civil rights and the struggle to open doors for women. It is still part of this struggle. It is now a bellwether for whether a public university will truly remain public.
One of the lessons we have learned these last few weeks is that we, a free people – the public – need to speak up for higher education, and we need to speak up everywhere. The boards that govern these institutions need our support – not blind support but informed, nuanced, vibrant support.
These boards especially need our willingness to engage with them in the long tedious work of governance. Now that Teresa Sullivan has been reinstated, we cannot go away. It is not just to student councils, faculty senates and alumni associations that this task falls. It falls to us, the public.
All of us have a stake in this: What makes a public university public is not the percentage of state financial support it receives. What makes a public university public is the ownership. We, the public, are the owners of this great institution across the street.
Those who serve as our representatives as public trustees will have no backbone if we don’t have one. At stake is nothing less than an essential cornerstone of democracy.
Indeed, we have a responsibility to those who come after us to build a better country, to govern ourselves as a free people – an educated free people – and not just for ourselves but those who reach these shores to find freedom, and those who will come after us.
There is a reason we hear this passage from the Book of Deuteronomy every Fourth of July, and we do well to inscribe it on our hearts in our minds:
“The LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
By James Richardson, St. Paul's Memorial Church, Fiat Lux