It was a crisp sunny autumn day, a bit breezy for sitting outside perhaps but the storied Lawn of the Grounds was the perfect place for the event. It started with a procession of dignitaries from all the top universities, Harvard, Oxford, and 100 others marching two by two in their full regalia of gowns of black red, blue and crimson.. hoods with silk and velvet sashes indicating their achievements, all PhD’s in every imaginable academic discipline. All gathered here on the Grounds of Mr. Jefferson’s Academical Village overlooked by the Romanesque Rotunda, the pavilions and colonnade halls and a statue of Homer.
We were here for the inauguration of the 9th president of the University of Virginia, Mr. Jim Ryan, but I was struck by the assembly of such a group representing a lineage, a pinnacle of human intellectual achievement. As we waited for the official event to begin I couldn’t help but wonder at how far we’ve come as a species and yet whether we have time yet to save it all… I wondered at how we could go to the moon, and yet can’t seem able to save ourselves, because our rampant progress without foresight and restraint to the limits of earth’s resources has set us on a trajectory that might mean the earth says enough with you, you destructive species… and unleashes a climate catastrophe and there we go, the way of the dinosaurs. Is that our fate, I wondered, watching these highest of achievers:
“[UVA] faculty and alumni, collectively, have discovered the Higgs boson particle and the vaccine for yellow fever; they have mapped the human genome, served as this country’s poet laureate, brought clean water to the developing world, found the link between the brain and immune system, built tools to help detect infections in premature infants, broadened our understanding of black holes and the Milky Way, served as governors and senators, and won Nobel Prizes in medicine, economics, literature and peace.” (Jim Ryan)
They no doubt all know that unless we find a way to capture carbon and are able to scale such a technology rapidly, who knows what happens.
I wonder what Mr. Jefferson would say today about these United States and the rise of fascism around the world. And why is it that we still can’t embrace each other as brothers and sisters regardless of race, of religion, of where we were born, of what we look like… we are all human. We all belong. Everywhere. We belong to earth. Will we live to see the day when we may be asked where are we from, and the correct answer, the only answer, is earth?
Mr. Ryan offered some hope as he centered his inaugural address around a reflection of having faith in the unfinished project:
“But the faith I would like to discuss is of the secular variety. It’s the faith of the Emily Dickinson poem: “The pierless bridge supporting what we see unto the scene that we do not.” The faith that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase . . . What stitches these acts of faith together is a profound belief in the future and, more precisely, in the idea of progress. This is the grand faith of universities and those who participate in them: Faith in the possibility of progress. Progress toward a more prosperous, just and peaceful society, and progress toward lives that are more meaningful, purposeful and passionate. This is not, or should not be, a blind faith, but a realistic one, even a critical one. It is a faith that understands that progress is rarely linear, often messy and sometimes impossible to fully grasp in the moment.” Jim Ryan
We walked around the university grounds in Charlottesville where my husband was having a 50th reunion of his fraternity. We peered into the Edgar Allen Poe room where the famed author wrote The Raven and other stories, the beautiful Old Cabell Hall with its staggering floor to ceiling murals of academic life, the signs and symbols of the secret societies hanging on flags from the building. No one knew who were invited into these secret societies until the bells of the chapel tolled that a member had died. The favored ‘rooms on the Lawn’ occupied by students who went on to live public lives such as Katie Couric and others. The historic ‘Corner’ at the entrance to the grounds where the students to this day eat Gus burgers at the White Spot.
Attending the fraternity dinners we heard the history of how of this Chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu got started back in 1968 because there were only three Jewish fraternities on campus. The founders had not been invited into them so they started this fourth Jewish fraternity. My husband was invited to join them after being told by one of the other fraternities that “your place is down the road,” after not realizing that the Christian fraternities only accepted Christian brothers. But the Jewish ones accepted anyone of any faith. How women were only admitted into the university in 1970 , one person admitting to me that he had been against it at the time. There were stories of the road trips they took to the women’s colleges on weekends, Mary Washington and others. And 50 years later, what I observed was a group of brothers who have achieved and demonstrated the best of what their fraternity life was intended to inspire: a strong commitment to community service and a collegial spirit of supporting each other through the worst and best of times.
The new president, Mr. Ryan, holds much promise announcing at his inauguration that UVA would be offering free tuition to in-state students whose families earned less than $80,000 per year and free tuition, room and board for those making less than $30,000. And the university student body is now as diverse as it has ever been with more women than men, and students from 82 countries. Yes, we’ve come a long way and yet it was only a year ago that a young woman was killed by neo-nazis in Charlottesville and 11 people were murdered in a synagogue a week ago in Pittsburgh.
We visited Monticello and toured the home of Thomas Jefferson. Saw his collections of books and artifacts, his two pen copying machine, the slaves quarters. He knew that slavery was an abomination but felt it was an issue that needed to be resolved by generations after him. Thing is, we can’t wait for another generation to solve our problems. We don’t have much time left. It’s the one thing we are still figuring out collectively as a species: how to be good ancestors for the future beings on the planet. How much more rope will Gaia, Mother Earth, give us to get this unfinished project right?
Perhaps some additional sustenance for the journey ahead can be found in the words of Rita Dove, the great American poet, UVA faculty member and former poet laureate:
Back when the earth was new
and heaven just a whisper,
back when the names of things
hadn’t had time to stick;
back when the smallest breezes
melted summer into autumn,
when all the poplars quivered
sweetly in rank and file…
the world called, and I answered
Each glance ignited to a gaze.
I caught my breath and called that life,
swooned between spoonfuls of lemon sorbet.
I was pirouette and flourish,
I was filigree and flame.
How could I count my blessings
when I didn’t know their names?
Back when everything was still to come,
luck leaked out everywhere.
I gave my promise to the world,
and the world followed me here.
The last day of our trip I wanted to go back to the Grounds for one last walk on the Lawn. Joel Gardner, author of From Rebel Yell to Revolution: My Four Years at UVA 1966-1970, captures the spell of this storied place that I tangibly felt:
“Each time I approach the Academical Village, walking down an alley bordered by Mr. Jefferson’s famous serpentine walls, and emerge on the verdant splendor of the Lawn, I still find myself catching my breath as I try to digest the quiet magnificence of this amazing place. In a university that now has over twenty thousand students, there is still a serene, almost-bucolic quality to the Lawn- an escape from the “slings and arrows” of the outside world.”
We stopped by Homer and took our picture with him. The sun was bright against the white of the rotunda and we stopped at a reflecting pool in an alcove. Hallowed grounds. Hallowed grounds, Mr. Jefferson. This new citizen appreciates what you built here. The world calls . . . may we find the right answer. © Kathy Stanley
University of Virginia President Jim Ryan’s Full Inaugural Address
Joel B. Gardener’s book: From Rebel Yell to Revolution: My Four Years at UVA 1966-1970