Tuesday, December 9, 2014

UVA President Teresa Sullivan meets with University chaplains to discuss changing the culture

UVA President Teresa Sullivan
Photo by the Associated Press
“It’s been a semester like no other.”

So began Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, at a meeting with 15 University chaplains Tuesday morning. The chaplains, including myself, are part of an umbrella organization called “United Ministries” that include a wide spectrum of Christians, Jews and Muslims.

The chaplains asked to meet with President Sullivan last week in a letter about the current crisis surrounding a culture of sexual assault and alcohol abuse that has been rampant for decades. She responded immediately with an invitation to meet with her.

This has been a semester like no other in recent memory.

Hannah Graham, a second-year student, was abducted early in the semester, and her body was found about a month later. Two other students have died by taking their own life. And then in November, Rolling Stone magazine wrote an article about a student, “Jackie,” and her allegations of being gang raped at a UVA fraternity party.

Rolling Stone has since partially retracted the story. But there has been no let up in the debate over how to change the culture at UVA. It was clear in our meeting that President Sullivan welcomes that debate and is determined to make significant changes not just to UVA’s procedures, but also to UVA’s culture.

“I’ve been on this” since coming to the University in 2010, she said, soon after the beating death of student Yeardley Love at the hands of her student boyfriend.

Regardless of whether Rolling Stone got specific facts right on one incident, she noted, “we have actual survivors we are trying to take care of.”

She said the recent firestorm has surfaced survivors of sexual assaults from decades ago: “A wave of hurting that is hitting us.”

UVA’s counseling services are stretched to the maximum, and she asked for help from the chaplains. 

President Sullivan also discussed a number of ideas about how to stem underage drinking by providing competition to alcohol-soaked fraternity parties. Several chaplains pointed out that their organizations have created alcohol-free parties and events, but have not been well supported by UVA.

She pledged to look into that. She noted that she is working on opening a police substation on the “Corner,” and create a corps of “ambassadors” that will walk around in the neighborhood to help students get home.

The leaders of the fraternities are also engaged with her in working out new agreements with the University. She said she is urging them to “do things boldly, out of the ordinary” that could create a “virtuous cycle,” and could be a model for other colleges and universities struggling with the same issues.

The chaplains offered several ideas, including finding ways to tell the story of sexual abuse survivors that memorializes and keeps their struggle in front of the University community much the way the story of slavery is being told.

The chaplains pledged to cooperate with President Sullivan – and each other – in shifting student culture away from sexual violence and alcohol abuse. She pledged to improve communications with the chaplains and the community.

The chaplains also told President Sullivan that they are holding her in their prayers. She said she has been reading Psalm 27 a great deal lately:
“The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

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