VC Brigety’s Mantra: Honoring Our Shared Humanity

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

In talking with new Vice-Chancellor Reuben E. Brigety II, the word “dignity” keeps rearing its head in the conversation. On June 17, Brigety was instated as 17th vice-chancellor and president of the University. He acknowledges the difficulty of assuming his tenure in a time of dual crisis. “I’m the first African American president of the University of the South in the worst racial reckoning our country has experienced since 1968, and meanwhile we’re in the middle of a pandemic worse than the country has seen in a century.”

Brigety’s vision for Sewanee living up to its motto Ecce quam bonum, and for fixing what ails the world are both rooted in the same premise: “recognizing and honoring our shared humanity.”

“The pandemic is God awful and real,” Brigety said. “My wife, an ICU physician, has treated nothing but COVID-19 patients in the past several months.” The Brigety’s have lost two family members to the pandemic.

Sewanee’s plan for the return of students calls for a fall semester without breaks, ending at Thanksgiving and with final exams taken remotely. The University will release specifics on social distancing, masks, and other precautions on July 1, Brigety said.

As for sports, though, Brigety conceded, unknowns still hounded the decision process. “Our athletic conference has not yet decided whether or not we will have athletics, and what restrictions we’ll have to put in place to have athletics. We don’t know what our response will be to the decision of the conference.” He championed the value of athletics in “character formation and community cohesion.” “I want us to have sports,” he said, but stressed, “The disease spreads by exhalations, and when you do sports, you breathe a lot, often in close contact.”

The other grand challenge confronting the University likewise mirrors a challenge all colleges and universities face. “The incoming class of 2026 will be the smallest college cohort in two generations and the most diverse college cohort ever,” Brigety said. “Following the financial crisis of 2008, people stopped having babies at the same rate,” he explained. “Those children turn 18 in 2026.”

“You’ll have the same number of institutions competing for a historically smaller and diverse group of young people from 2026 going forward. For us, the question will be what makes us distinctive as well as welcoming and competitive.”

Talking about the challenge of attracting students of color within the context of the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Brigety cited three factors that drove the movement to front and center in the immediate now: the pandemic which kept people “cooped up” giving them more time to pause and reflect; the impossibility of dismissing the mistreatment of people of color given the ubiquity of cell phone cameras; and most important, “the generational change of what’s happening.”

“The young people who are on the streets protesting and who will be in our classrooms this fall are two generations removed from Brown vs. Board of Education. They were raised since kindergarten on Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I have a dream speech.’ They’ve never experienced their country legally treating people differently because of their race. They don’t have a frame of reference for rationalizing systematic disparate treatment. They’re not interested in progress. They want things to change now.”

“It’s been incredible to see institutions not historically vociferous against racism standing up in this moment,” Brigety said, pointing to NASCAR and the U.S. Marine Corp banning confederate symbols.

“We need to have honest conversations about the experiences of our fellow Americans and ask ourselves can we and should we be better as a country…Reasonable people of good will can reasonably disagree, but we ought to be united in accepting the fundamental dignity of every human being.”

Bringing this home to Sewanee, Brigety said, “Our first role as a university is creating a space where physical and intellectual dialogue can happen…setting a parameter of values where we hope those dialogues can happen.”

“Sewanee has been doing a lot of this work already.” Brigety highlighted the Roberson Project’s examination of slavery and Jim Crow and the Office of Community Engagement’s efforts to get students involved in the local community and engage the challenges of fellow citizens.

Brigety frequently refers to himself as “Mayor of Sewanee.” Acknowledging he was not elected to this role, Brigety said, “I hope to conduct myself as if I were elected. I’m accountable to the residents for their collective well-being.”

“The most important challenges facing the community are the ones the community thinks are important—parks, the cell phone tower, economic activity, and the currently obvious issues of public safety and health.” He stressed the importance of the community “charting a course together for where it wants our community to be.” Brigety envisions Sewanee as the “Aspen of the South…a place for convening around ideas, culture, art, music, literature, politics, and a variety of different activities in this beautiful space.” To attract cultural diversity Brigety emphasized the importance of “being a place that is welcoming.” He suggested ethnic restaurants, Indian, pan-African fusion, and a bar that alternated between featuring salsa dancing and swing dancing. “This doesn’t mean we’re throwing Southern culture away. We can strengthen the best part of our heritage—who we are physically and emotionally—as we create a welcoming environment to be part of our future together.”

Ending his five-year tenure as dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University, Brigety was under consideration for leadership at a number of institutions. Asked why he chose Sewanee, Brigety said, “Sewanee is a Native American word that means one who is wandering but has found his place. Sewanee found me.” A Southerner, born and raised in Jacksonville, Fla., Brigety was attracted to the University as a Southern liberal arts college founded in the Episcopal tradition. The natural environment appealed to Brigety and his family, all outdoors enthusiasts, and more personally, Brigety who loves riding, praised the “fantastic equestrian center.”

His sons, ages 12 and 15, will attend St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School. His wife, Dr. Leelie Selassie, will take a much-needed break from the brutal stress of treating COVID-19 patients. Brigety’s family will arrive at the end of July.

Brigety has already plunged into his job as vice-chancellor and Sewanee mayor. Why Sewanee? “I’m a mission driven person,” he confessed. “This was a place worth coming to.” Embracing the task before him, Brigety said, “I start my approach to life with recognizing and respecting the dignity of the shared humanity of every person.”