Despite challenges, Vice-Chancellor Brigety looks ahead

Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety, courtesy of the University of the South.

By Claire Smith

Reuben Brigety became Sewanee’s 17th vice-chancellor on June 17, 2020, in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic. Brigety left his position as Dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs to assume the role of vice-chancellor and make history as the first Black leader of the University. He is joined at Sewanee with his wife, Dr. Leelie Selassie, their two sons Redda and Roebel, and family dog Buna. In an interview with The Purple, he reflects on his experience leading the University through COVID-19 and outlines his priorities for the new year.

Brigety accepted his role as vice-chancellor on February 28, 2020, only weeks before the University closed its campus to in-person learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While he was originally scheduled to succeed Vice-Chancellor John McCardell on August 1, he entered his position in the summer to begin crafting COVID policies for the Advent semester. Under his leadership, the University held a full semester of mostly in-person learning, with a robust COVID testing procedure and strict rules on student gatherings. From August 17 to the present, the University had a positivity rate of .21%. 

Brigety identifies this success as the first of two impactful moments that remain with him from last semester. “The fact that we all pulled together and did it will go down in the annals of this university as one of its finest moments,” he asserts.

This year, however, was also marked by grief for the death of Sewanee student Ava Hingson. 

“It breaks my heart,” he continues, “that [the community’s experience with COVID] coincided with the death of Ava Hingson, a wonderful nineteen year old sophomore and equestrian, like myself. Yet helping to hold this community in its grief was one of my most profound moments as vice-chancellor.”

As he looks toward a new year in Sewanee, Brigety has plenty of moments to reflect on his role as a leader and his priorities for the University.

Brigety explains that taking on a senior leadership role in Sewanee made him re-evaluate his approach to leadership: “I tried to be, where I can be, much more consultative and collaborative, even that I have been before.” 

He points specifically to the University’s decision not to participate in intercollegiate sports and to the University’s COVID policies as two areas where he consulted other actors on campus for input.

“As I’ve told my team several times, my job is to do the things that only the vice-chancellor can do and to empower everybody else on the team, not just the administration, but faculty and students, to do what they can do in their respective spheres.” 

This includes entrusting the day-to-day responses to COVID to a team under the leadership of David Shipps, whom Brigety credits for Sewanee’s ability to stay on campus. Brigety emphasizes that his role was to continue to think strategically about problems the University will face once the threat of COVID has subsided.

 “The rest of the world is not going to wait for us to get our act together,” he explains.

In pursuit of that, Brigety outlines three strategic priorities that center his approach to new policies. These core areas are student success; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and generating alternative sources of revenue.

Brigety points to Sewanee’s rankings among liberal arts colleges as a source of ongoing concern.

“Our rankings in the US News and World Report have dropped 24 places in the last 23 years among liberal arts colleges in the United States [from a ranking of 23 to 47],” Brigety claims.

Out of the 16 metrics used to measure academic excellence, the publication most heavily weights those metrics regarding student outcomes, such as graduation and retention rates. Brigety explains that this key area is where Sewanee is falling behind the most.

“We have to shift course, and here’s the kicker: We just have to be as good as we used to be.”

Regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion, Brigety emphasizes that in order for Sewanee to remain competitive among a smaller and more diverse pool of college students, “we have to figure out how to make our beloved university a more comfortable and welcoming place for students who have not traditionally matriculated here.” The student population of Sewanee is 86 percent white, despite efforts since the 1970s to improve recruitment and retention of minority students. 

Lastly, Brigety stresses that the University must find alternative sources of revenue beyond undergraduate tuition. The most ambitious example Brigety gives for generating new revenue is expanding Sewanee’s educational scope with graduate or professional programs.

 “When the founders of our university laid the blueprint out for Sewanee, they did not conceive of us being a provincial, small, undergraduate liberal arts college… they actually had a vision for a much larger, comprehensive university,” he explains. “We’re not going to be a Harvard or Vanderbilt or UT, but there are some additional graduate programs that we ought to be thinking about.”

Currently, faculty and administration are studying plans for a graduate school in environmental studies that could utilize the Domain’s 13,000 acres for graduate research and coursework or professional certification.

As Brigety moves forward with strategic plans for the University, he also continues to look for his place within the Sewanee community: “I still feel as if I have not seen the real Sewanee. The coronavirus has been a great impediment in terms of my gaining a greater, fuller understanding of the Sewanee community, and, I suspect, of the community having a full understanding of me.” 

He also expresses surprise over reactions to some of his actions as vice-chancellor, specifically the widespread response solicited by the zero-tolerance drug policy, as opposed to the low level of discussion surrounding the Board of Regents’ statement denouncing the University’s previous commitments to the Confederacy and the Lost Cause.

 He elaborates, “One can only conclude that given the strength of response, that some issues are more important to some members of our community than others.”

Brigety has faced a variety of opposition to his leadership as vice-chancellor, ranging from critical letters or social media comments, to threats and vandalism against his family home at Chen Hall. On February 7, Brigety announced the threats made against him at Growing in Grace, an evening worship service in All Saints’ Chapel. 

While the vandalism is still under investigation, Brigety invited the community into a series of discussions of Sewanee’s values in the EQB: Reflection and Response initiative. University leadership will use the feedback from this initiative, which is a series of discussions among the Sewanee community, to determine more specific policies in the coming weeks.

On his hopes for this semester, Brigety says, “We have to have a serious community conversation about our values. Yes, we need to be intentional about how we’re going to be treating each other. And I look forward to those discussions.”