Detached, Clueless, Pedantic and Non-Responsive

UVa’s Beta bridge offers a “divergent viewpoint” concerning Young Americans for Freedom

by James C. Sherlock

A series of communications among Nickolaus Cabrera, a first year student at the University of Virginia, President James Ryan of the University and the University’s Rector, James Murray, has come into my possession. 

I have posted them here. I will offer here my assessment, but I urge each reader to access the documents and open the links therein to get a full view of the exchange.

Mr. Cabrera provided President Ryan well-documented evidence of severe personal harassment and threats he had received from members of the University community for his political views. 

  • The evidence included a video of a student council meeting in which any he was harassed directly and profanely for his opinions. 
  • He reports that he subsequently was blocked on Twitter by his Resident Advisor.  
  • He was subjected to a Student Judiciary Committee trial for appearing in a photo off grounds without a mask.  Seriously.  It was clearly the context of the photo that resulted in the SJC trial, not the fact that he was not wearing a mask.  
  • He reported that he gets a ride from members of the local Young Americans for Freedom club from his dorm to class to avoid confrontations. 
  • He provided screenshot evidence of extensive harassment. 
  • He named names and provided direct evidence of their links to his harassment.

One would think that President Ryan, offered this evidence, would have ordered an investigation by University Police leading to banning from the Grounds those found guilty of such harassment.  

Instead, Ryan’s anodyne, non-responsive email reflected his habit when he does not wish to engage.  His opening sentence:

“Thank you for reaching out, and I was sorry to read about your year.”

One could be forgiven for thinking Mr. Cabrera’s cat had died instead of the fact that he so reasonably feared for his personal safety that he was considering a transfer.

Remember the ongoing case of the medical student.  In that case the University took action decisively and with an iron fist.

“Upon consideration of all information available to it, the University’s Threat Assessment Team made a decision to issue a no trespass warning. … The Medical School could not in good conscience permit the return of a student who posed a potential threat to fellow students..”

No mention in Ryan’s letter of that famed Threat Assessment Team or of the “good conscience” of the College or Arts and Sciences or the University. 

Instead, Ryan encouraged Mr. Cabrera,

“or any student who is feeling threatened, to make a report (handy link provided) and connect with Dean Groves about ways to resolve the issues you raise, including your decision about whether or not to transfer.” 

I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that Mr. Cabrera thought his communication, that was also addressed to Groves, in fact constituted a “report”. 

“Your letter also raises concerns about whether there is sufficient diversity of thought on Grounds and whether there is a climate that promotes divergent viewpoints among students and faculty.  I think that’s a fair question.”  

Ryan can see the photo above for evidence of the climate for divergent viewpoints. I found with some difficulty a non-obscene one.

Ryan then told him of Rector Murray’s initiative (he did not credit Murray) in launching the “Democracy Dialogues” in January. As if that had anything to do with Mr. Cabrera’s complaint, its resolution or any action by Ryan himself.  

Again Ryan:

“As a University, we are also working to reaffirm our commitment to the free and open exchange of ideas across the political or ideological spectrum.” 

He cited: 

“the newly formed Committee on Free Expression and Free Inquiry.  The Committee will craft a statement that identifies the role that free expression and free inquiry play in UVA’s academic enterprise and how they shape engagement with the ideas of others. “  (“craft a statement”?)

“Finally, I have also devoted my own office’s resources to more closely working with organizations around Grounds that are working to open lines of respectful dialogue across differences.”  

It tells you everything you need to know about Ryan that he considers that substantive action. 

Ryan’s last sentence:  “I wish you every success in the years ahead.”

I have tried to put myself in the position of this young first year student, but my imagination fails me. I was myself a first year at UVa, and I was lucky to find my way to classes and meals, much less run for and win a slot on Student Council and, for my dedication, suffered insults and threats that reasonably caused me to fear for my safety.  

I can, however, imagine the reaction of B.F.D. Runk, the Dean of Men when I was there, had he been presented with the evidence provided to Ryan. He would have personally conducted an investigation and, failing the presentation of countervailing and compelling evidence by the harassers, expelled them forthwith.

Instead, Ryan’s response was simultaneously detached, clueless, insulting, totally lacking in honest empathy, non-responsive and insufferably pedantic. 

Rector Murray’s response, as we have come to expect from him, is far more to the point than Ryan’s. “The behavior you have described has no place at the University of Virginia.” Would that Ryan’s pathetic letter had provided the same clarity.  Instead: 

“Free speech is the lifeblood of any university, but that does not mean that we should condone personal attacks.”  

No, President Ryan, it means that you should expel those found guilty of attacks that threaten the safety or freedom of speech of any student. Start with Mr. Cabrera’s Resident Advisor if he did what Mr. Cabrera reported.  If you gave that authority to RAs withdraw it.

Now consider what would have happened if members of Young Americans for Freedom had harassed radical progressive students in the same way.  You and President Ryan both know the answer.

Ryan’s response in this matter alone is sufficient grounds for Rector Murray and the Board of Visitors to discuss Mr. Ryan’s near-term successor.