In a scathing open letter e-mailed to UVA’s Office of African-American Affairs and later posted on Facebook, the university’s Black Student Alliance attacked the office’s strategic outcomes for the upcoming year for wording the group felt painted black students as a problem.
Of particular offense to the BSA was the following statement: “The new director of the Luther P. Jackson Black Cultural Center will oversee the negotiation of spheres of influence among student leaders that threatens to wreak havoc on climate at the university.”
The BSA’s open letter denounced this phrase, saying it was an attempt to limit the power of black student groups. “Black students do not ‘wreak havoc’ by exercising our First Amendment rights of assembly and free speech when we speak out against injustices,” says the letter. “Black students and our concerns are not to be swatted away, our leaders are not to be subdued, and our voices are not to be silenced.”
Dean of the Office of African-American Affairs Maurice Apprey, who wrote the line that set off the BSA, expresses a deep frustration with the way the situation was handled and says the students misunderstood the meaning of his words and failed to ask him privately for clarification.
“They take those words and boom! They explode,” Apprey says. “Is this what I think of them as students? That they’re going to wreak havoc all over the place? No. It’s the lack of negotiation of these spheres of influence that could wreak havoc, not the students themselves.”
With the outrage over the letter, “I suddenly became a slave master that had to watch over them so they didn’t wreak havoc,” he says.
Apprey, who has worked at the university for 35 years, says that before this event, he had a relatively close relationship with the BSA. For the past eight years, he has frequently mentored leaders of the student group and even offered funding for some of the group’s projects, the latter of which he now regrets.
“They should not have a line in my budget or even space in my office and it was my mistake for giving them that,” Apprey says.
Not only did Apprey find the BSA’s letter unprofessional, he also found it offensive. In a private letter to BSA President Aryn Frazier, Apprey calls the letter a “shaming narrative” and questions why she aired her concerns in the public arena rather than in private.
“In the two years you have been here,” Apprey writes, “I know of no reason why you would grant yourself a single reason to mistrust me.”
Despite agreeing to an interview, Frazier did not follow up with responses to C-VILLE’s questions.
Now three weeks since the October 7 letter was released, Apprey says he has received multiple apologies from student groups whose signatures were attached. Darius Carter, president of UVA’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, issued a public apology to the OAAA.
“While NSBE appeared as a co-signer for the open letter,” Carter writes, “we were not in full agreement as an organization, nor were we aware of the intentions to distribute the letter.”
In addition to the engineering group, One Way Christian Fellowship apologized for “prematurely” sponsoring a letter it did not fully understand, and Imani Nichols says that the executive board for the Black Oasis for Learning and Development did not give consent to have its signature used.
At an October 19 town hall meeting to address the concerns of black student groups, an unwanted limelight fell on the BSA, says Apprey. A student at the meeting boldly asked who else had ever felt encroached upon by the BSA, resulting in an overwhelming response.
“Everybody’s hands went up,” Apprey says. “They had not anticipated that at the town hall meeting. What looked like a conflict between OAAA and BSA turned out to be a latent conflict between BSA and other…umbrella black student groups.”
Apprey notes that this discord among black student groups is exactly what he sought to improve in his strategic outcomes, writing in a public letter to Frazier that the BSA “…sees itself as an overarching authority for all black organizations.” Apprey says the BSA’s dominant role prevents smaller black student groups from growing comfortably.
Apprey adds, “The silver lining in the cloud is that it’s very clear that there are other umbrella black student groups. They exist, they all want to be counted, they all want to be heard. So now they have to negotiate the very thing I was talking about, the spheres of influence.”
Frazier’s open letter also names grievances unrelated to the office’s function, namely the lack of black faculty members at UVA.
Noting that the OAAA is not responsible for hiring faculty, Apprey directed Frazier to the provost. “Even though this is out of our domain, we advocate continuously for diversifying our faculty and staff. More to point, we, every dean at OAAA, contribute to teaching at this university.”
The office has revised the wording of its strategic outcomes, emphasizing instead the director’s responsibility to “foster shared leadership” between black student groups.
Apprey remains supportive of the Black Student Alliance as well as all other black student groups on Grounds, but notes the incident could not go unaddressed.
“Some people have objected to the way I have gone after the president,” Apprey says. “The answer is very simple—the venom that was speared was just too much to ignore.”