One year later: Steger, Davenport reflect on Principles of Community
President Charles Steger and Virginia Tech Board of Visitors Rector Ben Davenport share reflections on the first anniversary of the signing of the Virginia Tech Principles of Community (March 14, 2006).
President Charles Steger
What has the Virginia Tech Principles of Community meant to you? What has being a signer meant for you?
As the time of the signing, I described the Principles of Community as another indication that Virginia Tech is completely unified in our commitment to a diverse and inclusive community. Every time the principles are read or referred to, it serves as a reaffirmation of our shared beliefs. These principles are things that we, together, hold dear and recognize as indispensable to maintaining a community of learning and discovery.
Neither my name nor any single signature upon the document gives it importance; all the names do. The people who signed the Principles of Community did so as individuals and as representatives of staff, faculty, and students, as well as administrators, alumni, and the board of visitors. The significance of this document is that all members of the community came together on a joint agreement of how we wish to conduct ourselves today and on how we see ourselves progressing into the future. We are taking responsibility for our behavior, individually and collectively. The Principles of Community is a powerful statement of purpose and resolve.
How is Virginia Tech changing? What differences are you seeing?
I think we are seeing the difference in ways small and large. As I move about campus, it seems there are more conversations and friendships between people of divergent backgrounds. These are changes on the individual level. There are also numerous programs and organizations on campus that recognize, highlight, and support the diverse needs and interests of both those on campus and those in the surrounding community. I don’t think we are where we want to be, but we have made tremendous progress in recent years, and the Principles of Community is another milestone in that progression.
Let me step back a moment. As you may know, I am an alumnus of Virginia Tech, Class of 1969. When I was a student, I never had the opportunity to learn from a black faculty member because there were none. Nor can I recall a Hispanic faculty member or an openly gay faculty member. That is a sobering thought.
We students of the 1960s actually experienced the infancy of racial diversity on this campus. Black students began living on campus. In 1966, the university enrolled its first black women. The following year, Jerry Gaines became the first African-American athlete to sign at Virginia Tech. During the 1970s, the first black students received advanced degrees, black women entered the corps of cadets, and James Whitehurst became the first African American appointed to the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors. An aggressive campaign began to recruit African-American students, and this period witnessed the founding of many black student organizations, including what is now the Black Student Alliance.
In the 1980s, efforts to attract and retain quality African-American faculty and staff increased. The Black Faculty/Staff Caucus was founded to assist in these efforts and to encourage equitable representation of black faculty and staff in all aspects of university life. This decade also saw the founding of Virginia Tech’s chapter of the NAACP and the establishment of the Black Organizations Council.
Nikki Giovanni became the first female full professor in the English department and, most deservingly, she now holds the esteemed title of University Distinguished Professor. Among her recent honors, she was the first recipient of the Rosa Parks "Woman of Courage" award and now has a children’s book about Parks on the New York Times’ best-seller list. Consider for a moment that one of Virginia Tech’s faculty members is teaching our nation’s young people about the leadership and value of Rosa Parks, who truly was a woman—an African-American woman—of great courage.
In the 1990s, the Black Cultural Center opened in Squires, the Engineering Minority Center opened under the direction of Bev Watford, and more African Americans assumed administrative posts. Lucinda Roy became the first black associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Barbara Pendergrass was named Dean of Students. The position of Vice President for Multicultural Affairs was created, and Ben Dixon was hired.
In recent years, we have been honored to have as our University Commencement speakers the Honorable LeRoy Hassell, who is the first African-American Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, and Pierre Thomas, an African-American alumnus who is now an ABC -TV news correspondent.
Currently, two members of our board of visitors are African American, and three are women. One-third of our vice presidents are African American or women, including our first African-American vice president for student affairs.
The freshman class that entered last fall is both the strongest and the most diverse class ever admitted, with about 27 percent being non-Caucasian. Among the freshmen, we see an increase in African-American, Hispanic, and Asian students, and 43 percent of the freshmen are women. I am excited about a new program started in admissions this year called the Yates Project, which is named in honor of pioneer alumnus and retired faculty member Charles L. Yates and has the potential to hasten the further diversification of our student population.
Today, Virginia Tech is multicultural and multinational, with members from all 50 states and more than 100 nations, representing a multitude of cultures, ethnic groups, races, religions, geographic regions, and points of view. I am very pleased to say that overall we are much more understanding and appreciative of other cultures and perspectives.
Last year we passed the new Anti-Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Policy. The SafeWatch program, which encourages a welcoming community with regard to age, color, disability, gender, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, and veteran status, was just initiated. It also provides another mechanism for reporting incidents of discrimination or harassment.
In January, we held the Mid-Atlantic Conference on Scholarship and Diversity that included people from businesses and industry, as well as members of the campus community, including the Rector of the Board of Visitors Ben Davenport.
We set aside a day without classes to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which we will continue to do from this year forward, and held a series of outstanding programs as part of Black History Month, including riveting presentations by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Angela Davis. Last spring, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel spoke on our campus. Last fall, we had a successful Celebration of Diversity. The list could go on and on. And I am very pleased that many of these activities attracted and incorporated people from beyond the immediate community.
These programs, as well as core curriculum requirements, reflect the university’s commitment to promoting an understanding of diversity and to fostering a community that values and celebrates the things that make us different, as well as those that bring us together.
As we celebrate the one-year anniversary, what else can we, the university community, do to move forward?
Implementation of the recommendations developed by the Commission on Equal Opportunity and Diversity (CEOD) early last spring is ongoing. In the relatively short time it has existed, CEOD has established a vital role for itself in the life of the university.
At my request, Ben Dixon is working on an assessment of the effectiveness of all our programs developed to enhance diversity on campus. The pool of resources is finite and we need to invest those resources wisely. We will continue to support programs that are effective, discontinue those that are no longer effective, and reallocate resources to new programs that have a greater promise of success.
And we should not overlook the one thing that can have the greatest impact for good and that costs nothing at all – the word-of-mouth of our current students, faculty, and staff. Speaking to those groups for a moment: you have more credibility and influence within your respective circle of friends, family, and colleagues than any admissions officer, department head, or university president. Use your influence to persuade those family members, friends, and colleagues to make Virginia Tech their university, too.
Unfortunately, there continue to be incidents of discrimination. Such incidents are distressing to the entire university and will not be tolerated. Be assured that each incident is taken seriously and each is addressed, although it is not always possible to share information publicly on the status of investigations or resulting actions. It is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that Virginia Tech is a welcoming, inclusive environment, free of discrimination and harassment, where all individuals can work and learn.
I would urge everyone to again read, think about, and recommit themselves to the ideas of the Principles of Community, which so clearly convey many of the core values of this university. We should admit to ourselves when we fall short of living up to these principles and resolve to rectify the situation and handle it better the next time. It is not enough if these are merely concepts on a piece of paper. Only our collective actions and behaviors will keep the principles alive and relevant.
Let us renew our commitment to do as these principles state--“create a community that nurtures learning and growth for all its members.” If any place should be such a community, it is our institutions of education. We exist to give people the freedom to dream and the opportunity to realize those dreams. But to make those dreams come true takes dedication, determination, and hard work. . . it takes a daily commitment.
Virginia Tech Board of Visitors Rector Ben Davenport
What has the Principles of Community meant to you? What has being a signer meant for you?
The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors has a goal of looking at issues and developing policies that make the university better and stronger. Certainly, the Virginia Tech Principles of Community helps fulfill that goal.
Virginia Tech’s mission statement states, “. . . the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.”
The ideas expressed in the Principles of Community speak directly to the very reason that the university exists. They are central to our purpose. We must be about providing a means for personal growth and opportunities for all people. In a free society, the discovery and dissemination of knowledge is a primary means in developing the social fabric and the cooperative spirit required for stronger communities, including the community of nations.
In a very practical and personal sense, I live and earn my living in an area of Virginia that is experiencing severe economic hardships. The manufacturing and agricultural industries that have sustained us for more than two centuries are vanishing. Our region must have the best minds involved in innovative thinking to ensure that we survive. We cannot afford to waste the talents of those living in the region nor those who might be attracted to live and work with us. If we are to compete, not just as we have in the past against North Carolina or Tennessee, but in a global context, we must have the most creative and knowledgeable thinkers. Those people will come from our universities, such as Virginia Tech.
We can’t be shortsighted or isolationist. To compete in markets around the world, we must have people who are intelligent and well-educated and who can work with others from a variety of cultural, religious, and ethnic, as well as socioeconomic and gender, groups. If we are to succeed as a university, an organization, or an economic enterprise, we must call upon the abilities of all our people.
My signature on the Principles of Community has meaning to me as an individual, as a representative of the board of visitors and, through the board, as a representative of the people of the commonwealth. As an individual, I feel that my signature is the same as giving my word; it means I am freely entering into an agreement to act in ways as agreed upon or proscribed. I do so willingly and with sincere intent to follow through on my commitment to the very best of my ability. As a representative of the board and of people across Virginia, I feel that my signature brings larger groups into the agreement and into the community. I am, in all these roles, committed to the “values of human dignity” and to the rejection “of all forms of prejudice and discrimination.”
How is Virginia Tech changing? What differences are you beginning to see?
That we have codified these principles is one way that the university is changing. And from the Principles of Community, the Commission on Equal Opportunity and Diversity developed a “How-to Guide.” This guide was created in an attempt to provide a series of suggestions, practical strategies, on how to use the Principles of Community in a number of different settings: in the classroom, the work place, with student organizations and elsewhere on campus as well as in the greater community. This helps ensure that the principles have an on-going place in life on campus and beyond.
I am pleased to see the Yates Project up and running very successfully. This project is designed to increase the diversity in our student body. It is an outgrowth of the recommendations from the ad hoc committee on the narrow-tailoring concept, which I am proud to say I chaired. We saw increases in African-American, Hispanic, and Asian students among this year’s freshmen. And we are very pleased to see an increase in the diversity of this year’s applicant pool with greater numbers of applications from prospective Black and Hispanic students. The numbers may be higher than what we know because more and more prospective students are identifying their race as “other” on their college applications. More than 20 percent of this year’s applicants did so, up from a little more than four percent five years ago.
I want to mention two other things with which I have been personally involved: the Diversity Summit on how we can make further progress on campus, and the Mid-Atlantic Conference on Scholarship and Diversity, which extended our discussions into and involved the broader community. And as we get ready to celebrate the anniversary of the Principles of Community, we have just concluded what by all accounts has been a very successful Black History Month and are embarking on this year’s Women’s Month, which includes the experiences of and insights from women in a variety of cultures.
What else can we do to move forward?
I hope that as we look back at the year since the signing of the Principles of Community, each member of the Virginia Tech community will celebrate our successes in enhancing diversity and will explore what made those efforts worthwhile and workable.
You always want to learn from those things that bring about positive results. Yet, we must take care not to celebrate as if we are at the end of the effort. The purpose for having an anniversary celebration is to re-affirm our commitment and our energies to these efforts. While we can pause for reflection, we cannot allow that brief hiatus to slow our momentum.
The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors is trying to keep a finger on the pulse of the university. In addition to the reports we hear at every meeting from the student and faculty representatives, and periodically from the staff, we have also been trying to reach out to student groups through the Student Affairs Committee. For example, prior to our meeting on March 27, the committee will have breakfast with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Alliance student group. Although we are removed from day-to-day life on campus, the board does make an effort to stay apprised of the campus climate and emerging issues.
I applaud President Steger and Vice President Ben Dixon for assessing the effectiveness of the programs developed to enhance diversity. We must use our limited resources to support programs that are working or show the greatest potential for success. We do not have time, money, or energy to waste. Our diversity efforts are moving forward. Now, we must re-affirm our commitment and accelerate our momentum.