Vice-Chancellor-elect Reuben E. Brigety II prepares to speak at the reception in his honor. Photo by Rob Mohr (C’21).
By Claire Smith
Countless students, community members, faculty, and staff crowded into Cravens Hall Friday, February 28 to meet the new Vice-Chancellor-elect, Ambassador Reuben Brigety II. The hall was abuzz with excitement as people hurried into an ever-growing line to shake hands with Brigety and his wife, Dr. Leelie Selassie.
Ambassador Brigety is the first person of color to be elected as Vice-Chancellor of the University of the South, an historic moment in its own right. Beyond Brigety’s position in Sewanee’s history, he also brings a unique background to the role of vice-chancellor as a U.S. ambassador and human rights advocate. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Ambassador Brigety is a distinguished midshipman graduate of the Naval Academy and holds both a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge.
Brigety served as U.S. ambassador to the African Union, was a permanent representative of the U.S. to the UN Economic Commission for Africa, and was deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of African Affairs. In 2015, he became a dean at the highly-ranked Elliot School at George Washington University. He has also worked as a professor at George Mason University and the School of International Service at American University and conducted research in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch.
The day before Brigety was introduced to the Sewanee community, the University sent an invitation from the Board of Trustees via email for a “special introduction” in Cravens Hall on Friday. Though the invitation was vague, it was widely speculated that, given the timing, the announcement was most likely the election of a new Vice-Chancellor or University Chaplain. The next day, hours before the start of this mysterious event, the University Office of Marketing and Communications sent another email announcing the election of Reuben Brigety II as the 17th Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of the South.
Following a unanimous recommendation from the vice-chancellor search committee, which has engaged in a national search for a new vice-chancellor since September 2019, Brigety was elected by the Board of Trustees on Friday. He then addressed the Board of Trustees in Convocation Hall and introduced himself as “a son of the New South.” He continued, “Born in 1973 in Jacksonville, Florida, I am a member of the first generation of African Americans that was born fully free and equal under the law to all of my fellow citizens.” Brigety stated his commitment in “preparing the next generation of young people to become global citizens, ready to ‘fight the world’s fight.’”
As Brigety noted in his remarks, his election to the vice-chancellorship occurred during Black History Month, adding a particular import to his charge as the new leader of the University. He called the Mountain a place “where you go for insight and inspiration” and called on the community to use this insight to “muster the courage to be honest about who we have been so that we may have the wisdom to become what we aspire to be.” While his service to the University has not started yet, it is clear that Ambassador Brigety has high hopes for the future of Sewanee and plans to use his position both as a global citizen and New Southerner to achieve those goals.
Brigety also introduced his wife, or “better three-quarters,” Dr. Selassie, telling of her family’s extensive educational background and their resilience against political turmoil in Ethiopia, and of his chance encounter meeting Leelie salsa dancing in Charleston, where she studied medicine at the University of South Carolina and he was stationed as a Naval officer.
Following his remarks to the Trustees, Brigety moved on to Cravens, where hundreds eagerly awaited a handshake and a word with the new vice-chancellor. Though he was faced with a never-ending line of people, Brigety and Selassie took time with each person they encountered, greeting them and giving them a chance to share something about themselves. Once Brigety had a chance to meet with a good portion of the group assembled in Cravens, Vice-Chancellor John McCardell stepped forward to introduce his successor, calling the announcement “one of the best-kept secrets in Sewanee” and a very happy day both for his family personally and for the future of the University.
Brigety started his remarks to the community by thanking Dr. McCardell for his service to the University, expressing his gratitude for the foundations his predecessor laid in his time at Sewanee. He takes the charge given to him by McCardell and the Board of Trustees seriously, saying, “History is not inevitable… So, in a very real way, all of us who spend our time together here on the Mountain are in the business of making history because we’re in the business of helping young people make choices for their destiny.”
Brigety also addressed the long line of people who did not have the opportunity to meet him at the short reception, saying that his family “will make that our business when we come here to be very active parts of the Sewanee community.” He concluded the reception on this note: “In the African American gospel cannon of music, there’s a song called “Oh Happy Day,” and as the Vice-Chancellor-elect said, “this is indeed a happy day, and may we have many more together on this Mountain.”
Ambassador Brigety gave one quote which seems to sum up the charge he will bring when he assumes the vice-chancellorship on August 1: “For all who dwell on this Mountain, and to all whom we invite to join us here, on this penultimate day of Black History Month in the year of our Lord 2020, let us continue to labor together in the spirit of the 133rd Psalm: ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum—’Behold how good and pleasing it is for kindred (yes, brothers and sisters) to live together in unity.’”