The Board of Visitors must make an effort to clearly examine how the tumult of this summer occurred before sweeping it into the dustbin of history. It is insufficient to say that we are simply moving forward. If the Board does not diligently examine how it happened and install by-laws to prevent its reoccurrence, the firing and rehiring of Theresa Sullivan will forever remain a festering sore on the greatness of the University of Virginia and a continuing affront to Thomas Jefferson, our founder.
When I first stepped foot onto the Grounds of The University on a cold, bright day in January 1965, I knew very little about this institution.
At that point in my life, I was a broken, lost youngster who had performed miserably at my last college; a place that I loathed. I stood at the gates to The University on that winter day because I had been given a singularly rare opportunity for redemption through the intervention of my then employer, John W. Bishop, and Frederick T. Morse, who had been his advisor in the Engineering School in the 1940s. I would have one semester – no more than one – to prove that I could excel in a tougher educational environment than I had ever previously faced.
Born in China, I grew up in one of the grittier sections of Washington, D.C. Washington in the fifties and sixties stood at the crossroads of Southern institutionalized racism and Northern false hope; a dichotomy that was not lost on this Asian child growing up in a society that careened from benign neglect to outright hostility toward Chinese-Americans.
It was within this context that I approached attending the bastion of Southern culture and education. To say that I was nervous that day in 1965 would be an understatement of enormous proportions. How would I be treated? Would I be ignored or would I be the target of racial hostility (as I had been during parts of my life)? These weighed heavily on me, but I had few choices and this was my last chance.
As I started to meet fellow students and professors, I found that The University had a code. It wasn’t just a carefully crafted set of words and punctuations on a parchment; read but instantly forgotten. It was a living code of conduct called the Honor Code. The Honor Code didn’t just define your behavior in the classroom; it was the unstated basis upon which all of us at The University conducted ourselves in our society. Fundamentally, the Honor Code said that one must be honorable in their dealings with others. You could not lie, cheat, or steal.
What I found was that I was treated not as a stereotype, but as a person. Not everyone liked me, but I knew that I was welcomed on an equal basis. Sure there were problems, most notably at my social fraternity which had to confront the issue of accepting a non-white brother from another school. But you know what? In three years, I was president of that chapter; probably the first non-white ever to be elected as the president of a social fraternity at the University of Virginia. That singular achievement would be capped only by my being selected for a room on the Lawn in my last semester in residence.
The Honor Code made me a lifetime believer that clarity and truthfulness are the defining factors in one’s relationships with others, be they family, business associates, fellow students, or any other person for that matter. This is why I strongly urge the Board of Visitors to use their retreat this week to engage in clarifying how the tumultuous events of this summer happened. It is not just rehashing what went on, but a need to clarify how it could have happened. Hopefully through a clear dialogue, we can understand what procedures must be instituted to avoid its repetition. What happened this summer was a grievous injury to our beloved institution. We cannot let it go untreated.
While it was the honorable thing to do, reinstating Theresa Sullivan was merely a palliative on a festering wound. The bandage must come off and the wound treated, so this episode does not become the academic equivalent of necrotizing fasciitis.
Philip M. Chen