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BOV discusses free speech, public safety and community after the pandemic

The final session of the Board highlighted new performing arts center

<p>Student Member of the Board Sarita Mehta also gave remarks during the session. Mehta emphasized the importance of promoting positive mental health among students through increasing the scale of mental health resources.</p>

Student Member of the Board Sarita Mehta also gave remarks during the session. Mehta emphasized the importance of promoting positive mental health among students through increasing the scale of mental health resources.

The Board of Visitors discussed community safety, free speech at the University and mental health after the pandemic during a meeting of the Full Board on Friday afternoon. University President Jim Ryan also outlined his priorities for the 2021-2022 academic year.

Ryan began by discussing the recent opening of the University's new Veteran Student Center, which opened Sept. 9 in the basement of Newcomb Hall with a reception hosted by the Office of the Dean of Students. The center is meant to provide a space for student veterans and active-duty ROTC students. It was created with funding from the Jefferson Trust

Ryan also discussed concerns about the recent uptick in crime. The University has issued eight community alerts since the fall semester began Aug. 24 and a University student was struck by a round that went through a bathroom wall at Boylan Heights earlier this month. 

“Obviously you can't prevent all crime from happening,” Ryan said. “But my view is that we should be doing everything we possibly can to keep our community members as safe as we can.”

Ryan said that the University is making changes to address this threat, including increasing University Police Department and Charlottesville Police Department patrols near Grounds, as well as the number of ambassadors. Ryan also highlighted initiatives such as the Safe Ride program, Safe Walk escorts, Charge-a-Ride and the new Guardian app that were detailed in Sept. 16 email from Robyn Hadley, vice president and chief student affairs officer, to University students and parents. 

Finally, Ryan outlined his priorities for the 2021-2022 academic year, which include promoting the health and safety of the community, making progress on the University’s 2030 Strategic Plan and initiatives relating to diversity, equity and inclusion. Over the coming year, Ryan said he hopes to re-engage with the University community, including alumni, students, faculty and staff.

“I’m going to be spending a decent amount of time doing what I can … to help rebuild a sense of community and a sense that U.Va. is an amazing place to be,” Ryan said.

In response to Ryan’s remarks, Frank Conner, Board member and partner at Covington & Burling LLP, said he thinks one of the biggest current issues facing the University community is political polarization. 

“We need to try … to create some greater civility and acceptance of differing views,” Conner said. 

In response, Ryan referenced the importance of the public statement approved by the Board in June that affirms the University’s commitment to free speech and inquiry. The University’s Committee on Free Speech and Inquiry wrote the statement, which aims to outline the roles of free expression and free inquiry in the University community. 

The Committee held a listening session in May for students, alumni, parents and community members to articulate their opinions on free speech at the University. During the listening session, some faculty members expressed worry that the University no longer tolerates criticisms and that not all viewpoints are treated equally.  

Recent controversy among residents living on the Lawn has also led to debate over free speech on Grounds. A new Housing and Residence Life policy this year requires signs posted on Lawn room doors to be less than 8.5 by 11 inches, and several Lawn residents have expressed that this policy restricts students’ free expression. 

Susan Kirk, chair of the faculty senate and a member of the Committee of Free Speech and Expression, responded to the Board’s discussion of the importance of free speech. 

“I was asked in May by alumni, ‘Were the faculty really concerned about free speech?’ And to put it bluntly, no, they weren’t,” Kirk said. “I think there was a small and vocal minority … who were concerned, but the vast majority of faculty were completely aware of the events that were going on around Grounds and the tensions that existed. We trusted that the administration was handling it, and we thought they did so appropriately.” 

During the listening session in May, one professor said when he provided criticism about curriculum, he was accused by other faculty members of being racist. Others claimed students were not able to express differing viewpoints without feeling ostracized by their peers. One student responded to these claims by noting the difference between criticism of ideas and violation of freedom of speech principles. Kirk echoed this difference. 

“I think that [faculty] are aware that with the change in the … political majority, that people who felt like they were in the minority were worried that they couldn’t speak freely, but nobody was really concerned about free speech,” Kirk said.

The Board then discussed the COVID-19 pandemic. Board Rector Whittington Clement, who serves as counsel at Hunton Andrew Kurth LLP, remarked that while there have been breakthrough COVID-19 cases among students, cases have been mild among vaccinated individuals. Ninety-seven percent of students at the University are vaccinated, and the University disenrolled 238 students who did not comply with the immunization instructions when classes began. 

Clement also discussed the state of the Honor System at the University. The Honor Committee voted in favor of proposing a policy that would remove expulsion as a sanction if passed during student body general elections this fall. For the changes to be made to Honor’s constitution, 10 percent of the study body must vote, and 60 percent must vote in favor of the change. 

This decision will ultimately be made by students, Clement said, and he and Ryan will offer guidance to ensure that the decision is made with “healthy, robust discussion and debate with broad student engagement.” He hopes faculty will engage in the debate and offer perspective. Ultimately, Clement wants students to leave the University with an understanding of the importance of a community of trust. 

“How can we continue to produce the kinds of citizen leaders that are so well known all over the country?” Clement said. “We as Board members have got to find that balance between respecting student self-governance and at the same time helping to inculcate in our students as future leaders, the value and integrity and how they conduct their lives after [graduation].”

Sarita Mehta,  student member of the Board and fourth-year College student, also shared remarks during the session. Mehta emphasized the importance of promoting positive mental health among students through increasing the scale of mental health resources. Students have criticized the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, and Young Democratic Socialists at U.Va. recently launched a petition to improve CAPS and mental health services. 

“The past two years have pushed the mental health of students to critical states,” Mehta said.

Mehta also spoke to the sense of urgency of responding to safety concerns of students and community members in Charlottesville due to the recent uptick in crime. 

“Recent rises in crime and violence proximity at the University have created strong feelings of fear among students,” Mehta said.

Mehta said that these safety concerns show the significance of timely completion of the affordable housing initiative and the University’s plan to eventually house all second years on Grounds. The University plans to support the development of 1,000 to 1,500 affordable housing units in Charlottesville and Albemarle County over the next decade, and plans to continue to establish second-year housing as part of the 30-year plan

The Board also discussed the University’s return to in-person activities — Kirk said that although Faculty Senate discussions last year revolved around the COVID-19 pandemic, this year the majority of faculty members are excited to reenter the classroom.

Kirk also said faculty are concerned that during the pandemic, many female faculty members and faculty of color left the University. Kirk encouraged the Board to be aware of this trend, especially given the University’s racial equity task force’s goal of doubling the number of underrepresented faculty. 

“Almost everybody can say they knew somebody, and usually somebody within diverse community in some way, that had left for another institution,” Kirk said.

The Board then went into closed session before its final session and summary. The final session was highlighted by the $50 million gift from Tessa Ader which will allow the University to construct a new arts building in the Ivy-Emmett corridor. 

The Board also approved 19 resolutions, including approving the Karsh Institute of Democracy, the financing plan for the soon-to-be-built Contemplative Sciences Center and a series of distinguished professorships. 

In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Mehta said she found the meeting productive. 

“Having been back on Grounds with students in-person, I think it was really far more productive than the June [meeting] for me because I have you know a lot more understanding of what students care about and what issues are important,” Mehta said.

Mehta identified the new performing arts center as one of the highlights from the meeting.

“The gift for the new performing arts center on Emmet-Ivy is a really really exciting contribution, and I think a lot of students will benefit from it,” Mehta said.

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