The story of Sewanee begins with a protection of whiteness. Sewanee’s founders understood the University of the South to be the learning institution for the preservation of white supremacy. Our educational halls are named after them, our roads are named after their corners of the south, and their immortal eyes hang from our high walls. From where our university has been, more than a few of them would smirk at how little our university has progressed in recent years. The use of racial epithets at sporting events, brazenly racist attacks on our former and only black vice-chancellor, and continual exclusion of black life on campus continues to hinder Sewanee’s commitment to safely educate its black students.
Due to the nomination of Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety as the ambassador to South Africa, Sewanee has lost its only African American executive in its history. Soon the Board of Regents will announce the selection for their committee to find and hire the next vice-chancellor. My sincere hope is that they do not add another portrait of a white man to our halls. We have had far more than enough.
The work that Sewanee has to do to face the darkest corners of our past and its reflection in our present is not done with the hiring of one non-white administrator. Though students continually take up the mantle to fight for base recognition of the racism on our campus, the work of students is hindered by their short time here. We have wonderful professors, programs, and administrators who continually do the work to make our campus a safer environment, but not enough.
We lack Black professors in most departments on our campus. We lack Black administrators in every department of our administration. We haven’t worked hard enough to earn more Black students, only 4 percent of our campus, who carry the constant weight of being a non-white student at such a white instituion. Black leaders lead to a healthier educational ecosystem for Black students. Black students, whose work is often overlooked in lieu of white mediocrity, might gain greater mentorship opportunities. Their humanity, which is often challenged and mischaracterized by white academia, might not need to be translated so frequently if our institution was led by a non-white executive–if our whitest departments gained a leader that didn’t reflect their personal aesthetic.
The University of the South not only has an obligation to correct its historical course, but must take upon itself the responsibility of fulfilling its role as a national educational leader for hiring Black and brown education professionals. Based on recent publications from Harvard Business Review, we know that Black leaders are often not hired, nor mentored, nor promoted. The situation gets even dicier in higher education, where by some calculations, 8 percent of collegiate administrators are Black. To retain our national standing, we must become a part of the solution. We must choose a leader who needs no explanation of the biases baked within our university and who will ally to students of color when the next round of racial slurs are lobbed, a leader who can invite students of color into their house to share a meal to discuss how they can become the leaders they wish to be, without reservation or explanation.
It goes without saying, that perhaps my greatest reasoning for Sewanee to hire a non-white executive is our mistreatment of Reuben Brigety. Though his and his administration’s policies should be scrutinized (as any leaders’ should), our community was horrible to him. From smashing liquor bottles on his porch in the night to the racism spread in hushed tones, white students and alumni mistreated him and his family. He existed, within white communal talk, as an outsider virtually from the beginning. White students at Sewanee must come together to protect, respect, and uplift our next non-white leader.
Though there cannot be a perfect litmus test for choosing the next vice-chancellor, a virtually easy one to imagine is if your choice would enrage our founders. Would choosing another white man truly make the enslavers and the South’s apologists angry? Are you ok with their eyes looking down upon you in Convocation Hall, DuPont Library, in the McGriff alumni house, knowing you have appeased their vision for a white run institution?
Did Jackson Sparkman come to the mountain with this hatred or did he learn it on the mountain?
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