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‘I can’t imagine being more blessed': Groves reflects on triumphs, challenges of his time at U.Va.

After 14 years of service to the University community, Groves began a new chapter at Syracuse University on Thursday

Groves began his new position as senior vice president at Syracuse University Thursday.
Groves began his new position as senior vice president at Syracuse University Thursday.

As former Dean of Students Allen Groves begins his new chapter at Syracuse University, one important question remains for the 14-year veteran of the University — what colors will he sport when the two Atlantic Coastal Conference rivals go to head-to-head in just a few short months? 

“Oh, I have to leave town when both teams play because I’ll have a very strong loyalty toward Syracuse, my new school, but obviously a very strong loyalty toward U.Va.,” Groves said with a laugh. “It’s a hard thing to say, other than I will wear orange, how about that? I will wear orange.” 

In the broad scope of his time at the University, this may seem like a small question, but his answer is one that in some ways reflects this next stage of his life — one which will center his new adventure as senior vice president of student experience at Syracuse while influenced by the memories, lessons and challenges that made up his time at U.Va. 

Employed by the University for more than a decade, Groves’ time in Charlottesville began when he attended the University’s School of Law. After graduating in 1990, Groves moved to Atlanta, where he worked as a full-time attorney for 16 years before returning to the University in 2006 as a development director for the Division of Student Affairs. 

In July 2007, he was selected as interim dean of students, and in April 2008, after an extensive search process that spanned across the country, the University announced Groves as its permanent dean of students — a position which includes numerous responsibilities including orientation and new student programs, Newcomb Hall, the Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse and the Office of Student Life.

“My ultimate objective is to take an increasingly large university, with the resources of a research university, and make it feel like a small liberal arts college,” Groves said at the time of his appointment. 

Since then, he certainly made his mark at the University, becoming well known for his sense of style and friendliness — Groves even broke the Guinness World Record for most high-fives by an individual in an hour in 2013. 

Over his first two years as dean, Groves used his background as an attorney to push for changes to the University’s speech codes. Prior to 2009, the University’s free speech rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — a nonprofit focused on protecting students' First Amendment rights — was a red light, meaning there was at least one “policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” 

At a time where more than two-thirds of the nation's colleges and universities maintained these sorts of policies, Groves was willing to listen and work for change. 

“Back in 2010, I went to a speech [FIRE] gave at U.Va., and then I talked to them afterwards and said, ‘You show me what you think we’re doing wrong, and I’ll do everything I can to fix it,’” Groves said.

After the speech, Adam Kissel — then-director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program — wrote a letter to Groves detailing FIRE’s objections to the University’s speech codes, which included overbroad definitions of harassment and bias, policies that prohibited messages that “vilify” other people and language that classified “teasing” as a reportable offense.

Over the next year, Groves, then-University President Teresa Sullivan and their staff worked to reform the University’s speech codes. Language in the bias reporting system was changed so that “protected speech will not be ‘subject to University disciplinary action or formal investigation’ even if it is reported,” and language in the sexual harassment reporting system and other policies were changed to protect all forms of free speech protected under the First Amendment. 

The University officially earned a green light rating from FIRE in October 2010 — meaning no written policy was a threat to students’ First Amendment rights. Groves — who was a member of the Committee on Free Expression and Free Inquiry — remains a staunch believer in the rights of free speech and its power to create change. 

“I have always, from my days as a law student at U.Va., believed that our rights of free expression are one of the greatest gifts that we were given as a people in the constitution,” Groves said. “The idea that we would suppress speech, not allow speech, sanction or punish speech, is — other than the rare exceptions that the law already offers for true threats and incitement, those kinds of things — is very dangerous and something that we should as a people resist.”

Support for free and varied speech stretches to Groves’ views about discourse and social media. He cites concern about an active decline in the discourse among students and faculty, especially when it comes to flashes of anger on social media that often result, in what he deems, “highly personal” and “destructive” attacks. 

“That [decline in discourse], to me, is a huge problem for the idea of building community, for the idea of exploring different viewpoints and different ways of thinking about things,” Groves said. “I am deeply concerned about that, for what it means for our ability to navigate difficult topics and difficult situations and allow students to truly grow without being fearful that they might somehow misspeak or advocate for a position and then be aggressively attacked for it.”

But nobody, Groves said, is immune to criticism, and recently the University faced public backlash for its approach to free speech regulations on the Lawn, after it removed and restricted Lawn room door signs which criticized the University’s history of enslavement and exclusivity. One sign posted in the fall read “F—k UVA” and “UVA Operating Cost: KKKops, Genocide Slavery, Disability, Black and Brown Life” and caused some alumni and community members to call on the University to remove the signage. New restrictions will limit incoming Lawn residents’ signs to two message boards placed by Housing and Residence Life. 

Outside free speech concerns, there were many challenges and events that tested Groves’s capacity as a dean, especially when it came to incidents that garnered national attention and intimately impacted the student body. 

In May of 2010, fourth-year lacrosse player Yeardley Love was found dead in her apartment, and Groves was one of the first to receive the news. In the following months, the University community watched as George Wesley Huguely, her boyfriend and fourth-year lacrosse player, went on trial for her murder. 

Then, in 2014, Groves and Sullivan responded to the disappearance of second-year College student Hannah Graham and Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington. Groves was “intent” on listening to students and responding to their needs at this time of “significant anxiety.” 

“I was trying to help the University through the trauma of all that,” Groves said. “[Events like that] become part of the University’s fabric and are traumatic for the entire community.” 

Groves also reflected on the now-retracted 2014 Rolling Stone article, which detailed the alleged gang-rape of then first-year student Jackie at a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in September 2012.

Though the story was discredited after many factual discrepancies were uncovered concerning the assault, the story painted the University’s history of sexual assault and the administration in bad light, and Groves was fearful “that [the article] would undermine the good work that was being done to try to address sexual assault.” 

“It would have been very easy to take [the article] and say, ‘See, there’s nothing really going on,’ but in fact, what we did was say, ‘This story has collapsed … but there are things that have to be addressed and fixed on this topic and we’re going to proceed ahead regardless of this story,’” Groves said. “I’m very proud of how all of that played out. It ultimately ended up with the University redoubling a commitment to do better in that area.”

In response to the story, the Board of Visitors passed a zero-tolerance policy during a special session focused on sexual assault, Sullivan formed an Ad Hoc Group on University Climate and Culture to develop safety initiatives on Grounds and the University began using anti-sexual assault Green Dot programming. 

Groves, like many others, was also profoundly impacted by the events that occurred on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. The night before the deadly “Unite the Right” rally was held in downtown Charlottesville on Aug. 12, white nationalists wielded torches and marched through Grounds, where they met student counter-protestors at the Jefferson Statue in front of the Rotunda. 

Groves was there that night. After arriving to see white supremacist marchers surrounded two dozen student counter-protestors at the Thomas Jefferson stature near the Rotunda, he recalled leaning in and saying, “It’s Dean Groves. It’s Dean Groves. Let me get you out of here.” Groves received a laceration from a torch the protestors were carrying while escorting students out.

“I’ve experienced hatred and discrimination in my life due to the fact that I am gay, but never on the subject of race and never on the scope and scale of what I saw that night,” Groves said. “I’m glad I was there that night to try and help the students, but I’m also glad I was there that night because of what I saw and the lesson that I took away from it.” 

At the candlelit vigil students and faculty organized in response to the violence, Groves said that the vigil and peaceful march was the first step to moving forward. Thinking back on the rally from 2021, Groves now sees it as a “significant defeat” for the way of thinking for the white supremacists that came to Charlottesville. The nation, Groves said, was “repulsed” by what they saw and heard and he believes that the events were a wake-up call for many. 

Like that night at the Rotunda, Groves dedicated as much of his time as dean to helping and assisting students in any way that he could. As the administrator tasked with sharing the news about a student’s passing, he felt a personal responsibility to perform this task with the same care. Several years ago, one of Groves’ dear friends and colleagues lost a child in an automobile accident and while speaking with them, he was struck by how often conversations surrounding the death of a young person center on the way they died, rather than who they are. Groves sought to change that in his messages.

“If you’ll remember those messages, including two I sent recently, I worked very hard to learn about that student’s life and to frame those messages around who they were, what they were involved in, what their dreams were, what they hoped to do,” Groves said. “All of that came from that conversation with a colleague who was going through that tragedy.” 

This devotion to students was clear even in Groves’ final year at the University, when COVID-19 put the world, and the University, on hold. Groves took on a different role from anything else he had ever done, enforcing public health restrictions and sacrificing those vital face-to-face interactions with students, but still remained deeply invested in making sure students felt welcome and comfortable in a tumultuous time. 

However, it was when former Chief Student Affairs Officer Pat Lampkin — who Groves worked with both as an undergraduate student and dean of students — announced her retirement in January 2020 that Groves began to consider what the next chapter looked like for him. 

“That was the first time that I kind of allowed myself to think about, is there — after 14 years in this role at U.Va. — is there something else I’d like to do before I call it quits someday?” Groves said. “There wasn't anything that stood out in terms of motivating that other than I started to think for the first time about the [question], ‘was there another adventure that I'd like to have?’”

Syracuse University first contacted Groves in November 2020 about its open senior vice president position. However, Groves said, there was simply no way he would ever leave the University in the middle of a crisis, so he put the decision on the back burner. Then, in January, when Groves was “hopeful” about vaccine rollout and could “begin to see an end” to COVID-19, Syracuse reached out again and conversations began “in earnest.” 

“I was excited by what Syracuse was presenting,” Groves said. “It's a terrific school, it's the same size as U.Va., almost exactly the same size with undergrad and graduate, and I have come to love that size of school … [I] really felt like it was a great challenge, but one that I would enjoy very much.” 

As incoming senior vice president of Syracuse University, Groves’ role will expand upon his responsibilities at U.Va. He will oversee programs, services and personnel ranging from student health and career services to multicultural affairs and residence life. Nevertheless, his major goal there will reflect one he had at the University — how to make a large school feel small and make every student feel welcome. A big part of fulfilling that goal comes from personal, face-to-face interactions Groves had with as many students as possible at the University. 

“The ability to have one-on-one or one-on-two or one-on-three conversations is so impactful and helps guide your decision making much better than large events or large town halls,” Groves said. “The thing that’s so critically important is to meet with what I call the ‘average student’ going about their life here. Maybe they’re not in a leadership position, they’re going to class, they’re working hard, maybe they’re working a job as well — that was my college experience.” 

One of the major challenges at both the University and Syracuse that Groves identified is the transition out of COVID-19 and into a more normal semester. Incoming second years, Groves said, have missed out on a year of those traditional college experiences while incoming first years have spent their last three semesters of high school in a “very virtual world” — a reality that not only impacts students’ personal connections but also their social skills and academic experiences.

“You've got this missed year — this lost year, in some respects — of building social networks, of engaging with faculty in the ways that we traditionally do,” Groves said. “It also just stretches across the entire University when you look at what was lost, despite everybody's best efforts during that time.” 

Although he is saying goodbye to the University, Groves knows that there is more work to be done to make U.Va. the best school it can be. He hopes that his successor — who Robyn Hadley, vice president and chief student affairs officer, will help to lead the search for — and the rest of the administration continue to emphasize not only what it is that makes the University special historically but also what must be done to acknowledge its tainted history.

“The truth is, for U.Va. to flourish, it’s going to need to do both — it’s going to have to embrace all of the things that have made it an unusual, almost unique player in the higher education landscape because of those aspects of its culture, yet also address and fix and modernize the things that will make it a more welcoming, more relevant institution as the world around it changes,” Groves said. “It's doable but it’s not easy, and it means making some hard decisions.”

As for students at the University, Groves has one last piece of advice to offer — be willing to make yourself uncomfortable.

“Be willing to listen to viewpoints that are different from your own. If you’re a shy kid like I was, an introvert, be willing to show up to things, and yes, it’s uncomfortable, but make yourself talk to people and branch out. If you’re on the left or you’re on the right, be willing to go hear a speaker on the opposite side of the spectrum,” Groves said. 

Groves’ final thoughts in his interview with The Cavalier Daily reflect his immense love for the place he called home for 14 years — for the University, its students, faculty and staff and Charlottesville.

“I’ll simply say that, I’m fortunate to have lived a long life, and I will always be immensely grateful that a chunk of my life was spent at the University of Virginia, as a student and then later as the dean,” Groves said. “I can’t imagine being more blessed than to have had that experience.”

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