Twenty‐five years ago, long before I became a college president, I was hurrying to meet with the CEO of an oil company to discuss the possibility of his funding a scholarship for violin students. He was the chairman of a foundation that provided financial support for violin study. We’d never met. But I was head of the School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin — not exactly riffraff — and this moment had been months in the making. We said hello, shook hands and sat down to talk.
“I had no idea you were Black,” he said.
I was angry. I took a long breath. This was not at all how I’d imagined our conversation beginning. By this point in my career, I was an accomplished cellist and educator who’d toured internationally and earned Yale University’s first doctorate in cello performance. But now I wondered if I should just cut the conversation short and walk away. Instead, I decided to listen.
The man continued to talk. He told me that he and his wife had attended the Aspen Music Festival for several years, and they rarely saw any string players of color in the orchestra. He wondered aloud about the dearth of string players of color and whether the classical music community could do better in nurturing artists from varied backgrounds. Here was my opening — after all, I was there on a mission — so I talked about what UT was trying to do in that regard. I told the CEO about one student in particular, a young woman of color in whom I saw enormous potential for a career in classical music. A few weeks later, the music school had its scholarship. And my student went on to earn a coveted position in the viola section of the Cleveland Orchestra.
I tell this story often as a lesson of sorts. But over the years, students’ reactions to it have changed. These days, their primary response is horror at what they see as the CEO’s unpardonable insensitivity around race. “What specifically do you find offensive?” I ask those who talk with me in my current office at the University of Richmond, where I serve as president. “How would you have responded? How could the CEO have initiated this conversation in manner less offensive to you?” There is no right answer, of course. My sole aim is to spur their thinking, to continue the conversation.
But that has become an increasingly difficult job.
While colleges and universities have traditionally served as safe zones for pondering such questions, the politics and rhetoric now inflaming the nation have spilled over to foment a climate of campus unrest at such a decibel level that even the most innocent inquiry becomes suspect.
To be sure, not all inquiries are innocent. But since 2015, student demonstrations over free speech and racial bias have resulted in faculty firings, resignations and physical assaults on campuses from Connecticut to Washington State. Warring ideas (rather than actual wars) even resulted in a politically motivated shooting.
At Yale University, a firestorm around the mere suggestion that racially insensitive Halloween costumes could occasion discussion — rather than outright censure — forced the termination of one professor. The student who’d led the charge was later honored with an award for fostering interracial understanding.
At Evergreen State College in Washington, a teacher who’d questioned an equity policy that asked white students to leave campus for a day and reflect on their racial privilege was hounded by a crowd that gathered outside his classroom, shouting, chanting and demanding his resignation. The threat of violence became credible enough that Evergreen’s leaders eventually decided to hold graduation off campus.
In this swirling cauldron of overheated rhetoric, in 2018, I invited former Bush administration adviser Karl Rove, one of the most polarizing political figures of the past two decades, to sit with me on a dais at the University of Richmond and discuss immigration policy. I’d been prepared for an outcry, and we had plainclothes security details stationed all over the campus. Yet there were no outbursts.
Earlier in the day, Rove had spoken to a class on leadership, where students vigorously challenged his opinions on gun control and the Iraq War. After the talk on immigration, he appeared at a public reception — laughing, chatting, standing for photos.
Several months later, when Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation came to campus at the invitation of a conservative student group from our law school, some faculty objected, stating that Anderson’s views were “transphobic.” Several LBGTQ students echoed those concerns. But I insisted that we allow him to talk. This was an opportunity for discussion and debate, I felt. I hoped it might nudge students disgusted with Anderson’s positions to marshal arguments proving him wrong. Anyone with a voice can shut down speakers, but meaningful…