An opportunity to lead: Will UVA follow through on its promises?

Despite an abundance of resources, UVA has had difficulty attracting and retaining black students, faculty, and administrators. (Photo: Patrickneil CC) Despite an abundance of resources, UVA has had difficulty attracting and retaining black students, faculty, and administrators. (Photo: Patrickneil CC)

By Richard Dickerson

I am a native of Charlottesville. I attended all-black Jefferson Elementary School, Johnson and McGuffey elementary schools, Buford Junior High, and Lane High School, class of 1973.

Many things have changed since I left Charlottesville, shortly after graduation. The University of Virginia, however, remains omnipotent in terms of academics, economics, and public policy. The university continues to be one of the city’s largest employers. My father worked at UVA Hospital for 44 years, double shifts for 30 years. He left home at 6:30 or 7:00am, returning after 11:00pm. My father was not alone—many of my friends had parents doing the same. 

I am glad that president Jim Ryan is raising salaries to $15 per hour, but many UVA employees struggle to obtain decent affordable housing. The expansion of the university has and continues to have a negative impact on the housing stock in the city. Neighborhoods that were once all-black now have become havens for student housing. How long will Westhaven continue to exist at its current location?

Despite an abundance of resources, UVA has had difficulty attracting and retaining black students, black faculty, and senior black administrators.

The year is 2019, and the city and the university recently gathered to pay respects on the occasion of the second anniversary of the Nazi march. The march exposed to the world what many in the black community have known for years: Despite the happy talk about how great and wonderful Charlottesville is, the black community was often an afterthought at best. The role for many in the black community has been to cook, clean, and serve those in leadership positions at UVA, and then return to neighborhoods that were often neglected.

President Ryan has created a committee tasked with providing ideas and direction on how UVA can be better. But over the years, whether at UVA or other places, committees have been, and often remain, the final resting place for ideas designed to help.

The problems do not need to be studied to death. On the issue of race, treat people of color like you treat white people. The people who built the university and the people who built Monticello were slaves. The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers is at minimum a euphemism that seeks to lessen the evil of slavery, at worst revisionist history that seems to be geared to make whites feel possibly more at ease. Both send a very distinct message.

The university has really smart people, an annual budget of $3.7 billion, and an endowment of more than $9 billion. Budget determines priorities. How much money will the university allocate to address housing, illiteracy, health care, education? What specific actions will the university take to improve the quality of life for the working poor in its service area? How does the university improve upon its meager record as it relates to the number of black students, faculty, senior administrators? 

Over the years, the university has had a fractured relationship with city leaders in Charlottesville. The city needs the university and the university clearly needs the city. It is 2019, and the world is watching. The university has an opportunity to lead.

Richard A. Dickerson is a U.S. Army veteran who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, and currently runs a private consulting firm called RAD Communications.

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Bill Marshall

Just for the record…. most of the university was built after 1865 and the Irish laid more bricks than slaves (when they lived in and built Vinegar Hill) Blacks are hardly ignored or mistreated, and to make the claim is absurd. The opportunities by almost any measure for blacks at UVA are at least ten times greater than just a generation ago. White people SHOULD feel “at ease” with the history of slavery. It is blacks who should be at ill ease if we are measuring skin color. Worldwide blacks enslave blacks all over the African continent and nobody says… Read more »