Opinion I Featured

An Open Letter to the University of Richmond

Published: October 4, 2012, 12:43 am ET

I could fill a book with things I really love and appreciate about Richmond — wonderful classes, faculty who take the time and effort to invest in my education, research opportunities, programs like SSIR or WILL, which have so enhanced my time here, and even the fro-yo in D-Hall.

But lately my school spirit seems to be dwindling, as recent events suggest that Richmond is not the institution I thought (or hoped) it was. I am disheartened by the university’s decision to cut men’s track and soccer. Not because I am remotely invested or even involved in either sport, but because it says that a big enough donation can sway the university one direction without any regard to the effect on student life.

The decision by the Board of Trustees suggests to me that money and politics are more important than student growth and development. The hours upon hours of dedication these students have given to their university are wiped clean and rendered meaningless; moreover, no adequate explanation or apology is given beyond empty platitudes over the direction and strategic plan of the university. Worse still, there was little to no student say or consultation in a decision that would, first and foremost, impact the lives of students.

Further, the reaction to the changes of Ring Dance suggest to me that my classmates and many alumi care more about an antiquated tradition than the creation of a university which is truly inclusive to all and not just a select few. The hateful words characterizing so much of The Collegian comment section invalidated the experiences of trans individuals, while demonizing anyone who may fit outside a specific gender identity or expression.

A complete lack of empathy for low-income students who may have a difficult time affording the trappings of Ring Dance, or to students who do not feel comfortable inviting their family and do not want to feel like the odd one out with a faculty member or mentor accompanying them, was demonstrated throughout these discussions.

I call on those who seem to care more about their personal Ring Dance experiences than listening to the voices of marginalized groups to have more compassion, and to at least try to understand why changes such as these may help others feel more included.

It is times like these, those of anxiety and struggle, that we as a university community must reflect on and answer some core questions. What type of community do we want to be? What values do we want to reflect?

I would hope that in thinking these questions through, the answer is not one that is dominated by money over student say, or by privilege and exclusion over empathy and understanding.

What can we do to make our university community one that truly reflects and appreciates the voices of students? More so, how can we ensure that the voices of students so often marginalized — students of color, queer students, students from low-income backgrounds, and more — are heard and do not fade away into the background?

I truly believe in the possibility of a Richmond that is inclusive of all and supportive of student growth and development. This future, however, seems compromised at the moment.

I call on all my fellow Spiders to contemplate and engage in the potential of this future and take action, even when it seems far away.

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  • Class of 14

    Any donation that is large enough will sway a university. Thank goodness for all of the wealthy alumni that have given millions upon millions to make Richmond what it is today. I hope to be one of them some day and give back to the school which has given me so much.

    Also, I tend to be more on the side of tradition, and I think it is a shame that they had to make changes to the basic structure of Ring Dance. Should we do away with Richmond and Westhampton Colleges too? Our traditions honor the past and all the hard work that has come before us, while making us feel a part of something greater than ourselves.

    • WC13

      I love some of the traditions at UR, especially proclamation. I loved living in my all female dorm as a freshman as well. I do think taking a second look at some tradition is worth it though. I think there might be better ways to honor the Westhampton women before us. It just seems counterintuitive to not want change and progress though. Shouldn’t we always strive to do even better? Sometimes we don’t always know exactly how to do better and I think that’s where UR is struggling right now… I have faith that people will keep working hard though and fighting for what they believe in.

    • jon henry

      Why are you on the side of tradition? I would be on the side of innovation. I would think students at a school with a top tier business school would know that tradition only gets ya so far. Our society is built upon innovations on traditions. I would, also, as that you further explain what is the basic structure of Ring Dance. Isnt it at its basics a night to honor Junior Women? How has this greatly changed?

      As for honoring the past, I would ask that you expand this definition of past. Did you know there is supposedly a slave graveyard at UR? How about UR’s treatment of people of color in its recent past? I dont think I would like to honor or attach myself to that discrimination. Dont forget that our pasts are built upon murder, exploitations, rape, disease, war, and othering.

    • Sak

      Nothing wrong with donating money to the University to create new opportunities for students. Emphasis on new opportunities. I feel fortunate to have been able to do that in the past.

      There is much wrong when the University turns its back on fifty (50) members of the existing student body and shuts down the programs in which they participate. That damages the existing student body.

      What is especially troubling is that the members of the committee that was tasked with making this decision have never been named publicly, met in clandestine fashion and refuse to release the information considered and final report produced. The only thing we do know is that there were no students on the committee.

      President Ayers has proven he will turn his back on, and neglect his responsibility to, existing students. In that environment, no student organization is safe. Who knows what decisions Ayers’ ‘cloak and dagger’ committees are currently considering…..and how many students will be harmed be those decisions.

      • Matt Gilliam

        Right, they took money with the purpose of hurting their current students in order to get future students they somehow imagine as being “better.”

    • WC’14

      To be fair, Richmond, VA doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to traditions upon which a nation was built. Not all traditions should be maintained just for the sake of tradition. Unlike Manifest Destiny, Capitalism, etc., equality is not a tradition that the U.S.A. has historically held, honored, or respected. Furthermore, I fail to see how black dress Ring Dance would in any way impact the experiences of the women who participated in white dress Ring Dance.

  • Jamie

    Changing the color of the dresses and removing the escort from Ring Dance isn’t going to help queer students – what difference does it make what we wear? Why is the school sponsoring dances anyway? Proclamation Night needs to change too because it is just another throw-back to an era of discrimination and privilege.

    How is a trans student supposed to fit in with the artificial categorization of students into male and female groups? While I think change it good, this is just a superficial change designed to placate LGBTQ students and keep us from focusing on the real problems at UR. The opening of the LGBTQ Lounge in the library yesterday was nice but it’s another bone thrown to queer students; it doesn’t address the real societal problem of LGBTQ people being marginalized and put in separated places.

  • Onwards

    Thank you, Dana, for your insightful comments. I’m happy to see that students at UR are making the connections between recent events on campus and striving to see the larger values questions underlining their struggles. Keep writing!

  • Peter

    Right on, Dana!

  • Maeghan

    I’m with you on the soccer/track issue but we diverge drastically when it comes to ring dance.

    some people don’t like a tradition so we should ruin it for everyone else?

    That’s really such a great way to handle things. Really.

    That’s like me saying “other people dying their hair purple makes me uncomfortable, therefore nobody is allowed to do it.”

    just ridiculous.

    • wc2013

      Except that dying one’s hair is an individual choice, not an university sponsored event which has unwritten behavioral and social guidelines enforced by the student body that make people feel excluded and further marginalized. There are many for whom Ring Dance is an unbelievably difficult tradition, and I don’t think people understand what kind of impact it has on them as many are afraid of being on the receiving end of the type of hateful backlash displayed in so many of the Collegian comments.

      If little changes can make people feel more included, and make Richmond a slightly better place for them, why can’t we make them? As Dana so nicely said, it’s time we as a student body become more compassionate, and take more responsibility for the consequences our “traditions” have on other people.

      • Maeghan

        so if they don’t like it, they don’t have to participate.

        • tired of this

          Yup, just like if you don’t like the whole black dress/no escort thing, you don’t have to participate either.

          • VoiceOfReason

            So the whole white dress/escort thing and the whole black dress/no escort thing should be equally acceptable because the tradition is voluntary, just like walking at graduation, right?

      • Susan James

        It’s wrong to characterize those who want to keep white dresses as against queer students and other diverse populations. This isn’t a battle for the soul of Westhampton like the author is making it out to be. If there are issues with the way LGBTQ students are treated by the entire student body then THOSE issues need to be addressed NOT the color of a dress. It seems to most that UR has made substantive changes to accommodate LGBTQ students including Queer Literature classes, admitting transgendered students, making coed dorms so those students could more easily fit in, opening a LGBTQ lounge in the library, having lectures on Queer issues, and many other changes. Is the LGBTQ community just out to tear down long standing traditions any way they can just to punish the very students who have stood by them – case in point, the female student at the class of ’12 Ring dance who wore a tux and was told by the mistaken photographer to get out of the picture. The student herself in a Collegian article last year expressed that her classmates stood up for her. She is in the pictures. It seems to me that experience demonstrates how supportive the white-dress-wearing juniors were if their classmate in spite of all of the claims of discrimination on the part of some commenters and authors here. There will always be persons who act in a hurtful way against LGBTQ persons – it’s only when the community is given a chance, as was the case two years ago, that they can show that they embrace these students. As far as economic challenges, there have ALWAYS been economic diversity is the student body. And students of color have traditions within historically black sororities of wearing white for formals so don’t begin to paint students of color with the broad claim that they are standing shoulder to shoulder with LGBTQ students on the white dresses or escorts.

  • Jon

    Isn’t it great that we will finally have a men’s college lacrosse team at University of Richmond. I am so glad that there was someone willing to write a check and that the trustees listened and responded. I sure hope that the coach will not be opposed to allowing a gay player on the team especially if they can score 3-4 goals per game. Lacrosse at Richmond, about time!

    • MC 98

      LAX is a great sport – but not when it happens like this. There were simple ways to find a solution that makes the stakeholders of LAX, soccer, and track happy. The school just took the low road – that’s all.

    • Barbara Alexander Baroody

      one member of the board of trustees was not included in any of the meetings or discussions. He found out when the news was made public. Maybe he was excluded because his son was a professional soccer player. No problem with adding lacrosse just dropping soccer and track sort of under cover.

  • overit

    Dana, I find your article rather contradictory. You state that “there was little to no student say or consultation in a decision that would, first and foremost, impact the lives of students”, but go on to criticize the outrage expressed by many students that they weren’t consulted on the changes to Ring Dance. Dean Landphair even stated something along the lines of “we knew that if we left it up to the students they’d want to keep it to the way it was.” I think the overall problem with the University is with an administration that doesn’t care about what it’s students think, many of whom pay upwards of $50,000 a year to attend. While I love my professors and the education that I’ve received here, the administration leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    • UofR2013

      No, they definitely consulted students about Ring Dance. Though I was asked to meet with several faculty members on Ring Dance changes, I was not able to make it to the set meeting times. Several other students were asked to attend as well.

  • ML

    “A complete lack of empathy for low-income students who may have a difficult time affording the trappings of Ring Dance….” All else aside, I want to clarify that Westhampton offers students financial assistance to attend the event!