James Perla: Alright, perfect. So just to test your levels, it’s the first day of the semester. How are you feeling about 2018?
Dean Ian Baucom: I’m excited. I had the chance to welcome all of our first year students yesterday. One of my favorite events of the year. I give them their first formal lecture. So I feel invigorated about their presence and the faculty were gathered. So now lots of work ahead.
Deborah McDowell: In fact, speaking then of addressing the students we had a question about one of your first lectures to the student body as Dean where you talked about or challenged students, you to mentioned to students, we have a quote from that lecture, “Question what you need to question, follow what you need to follow, revolt against what is wrong, fight for what is right, bring all your passions your energies, your convictions, your thoughts, your individual talents, to the history and tradition of this place to conserve it and to make it new.” This is a very powerful statement and quite Jeffersonian. Could you talk a bit about the role of asking difficult questions in a conservative Institution? Or tradition, an institution steeped in tradition?
IB: I’d be happy to. There was a piece behind that there’s a famous essay by TS Eliot called tradition and the individual talent and I was thinking about that and part of what Elliot is arguing is that any long tradition, he’s talking about a tradition of literature isn’t simply something that is inherited by subsequent generations. Um, but changed by subsequent generations, by the way, they inherit it. Um, but also by what they do that is a departure from it that throws the past into questions so that the moments that follow really need to think about themselves as engaging, wrestling, disagreeing with the past, and in some ways changing the meaning of the past, ideally. This is a place that is grounded in a sense of its traditions, its history, its time steeped. There’s Great Value in that but also places that are deeply aware of their history can sometimes be frozen in their history. can sometimes act as if history is something that we only need to review and not something that we need to contest and so the question that I wanted to ask of students that I hope that I ask of myself is what can you take from this place that will inspire and change you but acknowledging that any great historic place is also broken and is founded on moments of brokeness. And lives still broken and while I didn’t want to say to them these are the three particular challenges to take on, it was an invitation, a request, an exhortation to look around to study their history not just to revel in it and to imagine that their task is not only to learn but to cause the institution to learn something about itself by their being here.
DMcD: So in our present moment, um taken all that you’ve said, what is the responsibility of this institution to challenge that history, to try to alter that history, uh, and if need be to write what can be collectively conceded to be historical wrongs.
IB: I think it’s profound, you know, Debra is you know, there’s an notion that’s important in all of our fields of study something called standpoint epistemologies. And to me what that means is that we know the world abstractly but we have to know it more than abstractly we have to know it from the very particular place where we stand, so where do we stand? You know, we stand in Albemarle County. Um, we stand at a university that reveres its founder and and reveres Jefferson for many reasons that are inspirational, but we stand in a place whose founding was also found in violence, was found in the violence of slavery, was found in the violence of the exclusion of women, was found at the exclusion of any person who wasn’t property owner. And I think we have a particular obligation to those histories. They’re not the only ones but we have to reckon with our past. We have to study it. This is something that [5:00] Carter Woodson has been inspirational for for decades. We’re a knowledge Institution. Uh, we need to research our past. We need to study it. We need to investigate it. We need to question it and if we don’t we can’t be a living institution and we can’t live, um justly with the past that contains multiple injustices and a present that is governed and instructed by multiple injustices. It’s essential to what a university is.
DMcD: I want to follow up on that. We are an institution like all institutions of Higher Learning in the business of reproducing knowledge. But what would you say to the assertion that at critical moments it is for some institutions simply enough to know. to delve, to create syllabi, to create courses, to invite guest lecturers, and that the knowing becomes a substitute for doing how would you answer that or would you agree with that? You may not.
IB: That’s a really important and complicated question. So I think I’d give two responses because we’re Scholars. Because we study and teach and research I do believe that knowing is a form of doing. I believe in the product of knowledge. And I know I know that I know that we share that and so I don’t I don’t think that those things are by definition opposed.
[Pause because of truck sounds]
JP: The benefit and the downside of having an office in the center of our beautiful grounds.
IB: For growing that we have a structure. So and I know I know that I know that we share that and that we don’t think that those things are opposed, that said, knowledge is also something to act on. We know for instance that the history of this place has been that it has been a, for the vast majority of its history, for the vast majority of its people, a white institution. Knowing the history that enable that, knowing the exclusions that enabled that is not enough. We have to become a different place. We have to become a place where we are a University of black faculty, of queer faculty, faculty who are Muslim and Jewish and Sikh and Buddhists and Hindus. We have to act on that knowledge. We have to know that we are an institution of enormous wealth and privilege in a city in which many of the people who work at the University are not people of enormous wealth and privilege and we have to act to ensure that the conditions of work, of possibility of real inclusion are met it’s not enough to name it. Uh we have to act on it. We know that we are an institution that was founded in its curriculum of study with a privilege and a priority for traditions of thought that are important and meaningful but that flow, have flown primarily from a Euro-American line of understanding. We have to act to ensure that we study the history of the world the cultures of the world in all of their range and then again to kind of return the question of standpoint epistemologies. To raise some of those questions as particularly important to race here. And again the work of the Carter Woodson Institute for years in knowing and acting on histories of Black Culture in the states and around the world is an example to me of the kind of work that we need to do.
DMcD: Thank you. Um, one of the questions that fascinated me or one of the points you made repeatedly when you were a candidate for dean was that this University must be the University of both Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. And the first time I heard you say it I said well look around yourself, feast on your surroundings the sounds, the sights because I suspect that assertion has killed your chances for ever being a dean. And so then you made it from that stage to the next stage to the next stage and then finally having accepted the position to the honeymoon tour where you continued to repeat that and most recently you inserted it [10:00] into a statement on the eve of August 11th and 12th. And so there are many people who have asked me do you know what the dean means by that? I say I think I do but perhaps we should ask the dean himself. So?
IB: I’d be happy to I actually want to begin though by thanking you Deborah. I think I think I was probably in a room with you. Yes, I think it was a meeting of chairs and directors when I was being interviewed where I first said that. You have been a, I mean this, important and inspirational to me and reminding me that this is something that I said and that I’ve said more than once and that words too need to have integrity and words too need to have actions that follow and I think, you know, a question that I want to keep alive in my mind is to what extent have I failed as a Dean? Have I succeeded with colleagues or failed as a Dean in trying to find ways in action to make that statement more true? What I mean by it… a couple of things. It’s an attempt to recognize our Origins. Uh to name and rename Our Moment of founding we talk a lot about our founding and our founder, but we were founded by more than a Founder. We were founded by a community in Liberty and a community in bondage. We were founded and built by people who were enslaved. Sally hemings was there at our beginning. And in some ways it’s a fairly simple attempt to recognize the plurality in the brokenness of that founding. It’s a recognition statement. I try to think of it as a, an attempt to name to whom we belong. Whose are we? Whose children are we? Whose Generations are we? and there’s something very particular about Sally Hemings and the duration of women and men, black women and men, African American women and men to whom we need to belong. There’s something, to me, symbolic about saying Sally Hemings. As a woman whose name, names many who for many years were not allowed to belong this institution. But to whom we belong, Republic. And it’s a statement of aspiration not of who we are yet, but of who we need to be. I think of it as a challenge as much to myself as anyone else. What would it mean to make that true in practice and action and not only in recognition and from that perspective, um, have we yet fully become Sally Hemings University? No, we haven’t. That work isn’t done but that’s how I that’s how I try to think that’s how I try to think of it. And and I will say that when I use those words in the message that I want to send to faculty, part of what was important to me was to put into writing for any audience that might read it that conviction so that I could be held to account.
DMcD: Thank you for a very thorough, very nuanced star response to that question. And I want to pull one concept from it and that is the power and the necessity of the symbolic. We all recognize how important symbols are. And on our journey as an institution if I could define our stages [15:00] very schematically and for that reason very inadequately, I would say we are now at the phase of renewed symbol making. Symbol making as it attaches to a bid to rectify historical wrongs. Right? And I worry about our being frozen there because however important symbols are by their very nature they stand for things that are connected to rigidity, to fixity especially in the form of monuments, let us say. So as we busy ourselves changing the names of buildings.
I’m reminded of a line and an Alice Walker story where two characters are in conversation and one says to the other, the one posing the question was not from the Southern US, so she says to the other character, “So what happened when the signs came down, when you no longer saw ‘colored waiting room,’ ‘white waiting room,’ ‘colored water fountain,’ ‘white water fountain,’ what happened?” And the other character says, “Nothing.” She says, “What do you mean nothing?” She says “Oh, yes, there were some changes around the fringes but the signs had already done their work.” And I’ve always loved that line. So how do we ensure that we not get stuck in the symbol making, symbol marking phase of change.
IB: I don’t know that I know. You know?I mean I can I can give you my honest thoughts but I don’t know that I know. One way to know is to actually never stop asking that question. I mean, I’ll try to answer it but but actually recognize that uh to recognize that that symbols are important. Maybe it’s thinking about symbols as a kind of writing. You and I know that the act of writing doesn’t end when the word is written on the page. The act of writing begins when someone begins to read and when they’re changed by what they read and we believe that reading does have the capacity to actually change how we act. If we put up symbols and think that they are the final act, they’re about closing the book, about concluding a reckoning, then the symbols become a kind of writing that is dead and writings got to live. I do think symbols are important. I do think that the built landscape of a place is important. I think that the signs that it gives, the invitations that it makes, the statements about have we thought about who we are? who are you? who gets to read these signs? Who sees what do you see in them? Do you see some kind of reflection of yourself? And I think those are important but they have to be invitations for us then to say well now what is to be done? And the, what is to be done? And what is to be done at a knowledge institution? What is to be done in terms of the courses? We teach in courses we haven’t taught. I really believe in teaching. What have we done in terms not only of a monument that is built but the living bodies who move through a place? Who are we? who is our body politic? does the body politic reflect those sides or does it not and if it doesn’t the sign should be a constant invitation to us that we have, we have failed. We have not yet concluded. We’ll never conclude. They have to be invitations to a program of research and study and scholarship. And, and I think it’s only if we are active readers, critical readers and the way in which reading is always a kind of an act of contestation. Right? It’s understanding and it’s kind of wrestling then we won’t be done. And so I think the signs need to be there because the signs are around us no matter what we’re surrounded by them. [20:00] Right? So we need to we need to add signs, we need complicate signs, we’ve got to, we have to respond and teach and think and act and work, you know as you’ve worked when the stories you told me the story about the young women and men from some of the Charlottesville high schools that you’re working with, the summer students who have conveyed to you that they couldn’t have imagined that this could be their University too. Those students we want, to wish to be our students so that they’re not frozen monuments, that they’re living bodies changing who we are.
DMcD: Well our time is coming to an end. We wanted we knew we were going to hold to 30 minutes because we know how valuable your time is. But one last question, we plan to start, that could change, the series with a conversation about the fallout to August 11th and 12th. I’m thinking in particular about the shrouding of the statute. In a sense when students shrouded that statue, they were making a statement about transforming traditions and there have been different responses to protecting and not protecting to veiling to unveiling as they wrestled themselves with these with the tradition of this University as it is, it’s Jefferson as the emblem. And so wherever you’d like to take that perhaps given what you just said there are calls as you know for increased diversity at UVA everywhere particularly in the faculty ranks. And so you’ve alluded to that being one way of making change. What is this is long-winded and rambling I apologize. What do you see as the greatest impediments to that and what might need to change in our approach both to hiring faculty and in our approach to diversity in order to achieve diversity? I hope that’s clear because I got to the questions circuitously.
IB: I’ll start with wrestling and then see if I can if I can get there. So one of my favorite biblical stories, yeah is the story of Jacob wrestling.
DMcD: Wrestling with that angel, right?
IB: Wrestling with that angel. And he wrestled all night. Um his hip was thrown out of joint and it hurt and then he had a new name. He had a new name. Um, we’ve gotta wrestle, we’re going to um, we’re going to say and do and need to say and do things. That are going to be experienced as hurtful. And if and if and if we and if that doesn’t happen, then we’re not wrestling. We gotta wrestle and so it’s going to be hard. And in part I want to say that because I don’t have an easy answer, Deborah. It’s not easy. I think one of the impediments that might have stood in our way is a hesitation to wrestle, um, you know, my colleague Bill Chafe historian of civil rights, um who wrote an important book on civil rights and civility and I believe in civil conversation. I believe in all of the parts that we disagree, we contend, we debate, but we’re respectful so in that sense, I believe in civility. But part of Bill’s, as you know part of Bill’s argument, it’s that the insistence on a certain kind of civility can be a way of making people be quiet and not to allow that struggle for civil rights to be realized and so civility is one of these complicated things right that we’ve got to wrestle with. We have to be respectful. We have to be willing to listen and have our minds change but we’re going to we’re going to hurt each other. [25:00] We’re going to wrestle with each other and I think that that might have been an impediment that has stood in the way, right? The discomfort of contending in a certain kind of a common love, right? for something that we care about with each other. I think structure matters. We’ve talked about this. The acts of well-intentioned people are vital but an institution moves on from one generation of person to another and you’ve got to bed in the structure of the institution what matters. We’ve talked about why something like the notion of endowment is important and it’s not just philanthropic. Endowment means to anchor into in inalterably the life of a place, a commitment in the present to the future. I think one of the things that’s really going to take to change just to make sure that as you and colleagues hopefully with me working together move one step at a time that we find the ways to ensure that those steps can’t be walked back. I think frankly something like this podcast series open public, honest conversation. Taking scholarship into the public sphere, demonstrating to a world beyond that in Charlottesville, that we’re willing to talk and be and think difficulty with each other as important. Maybe one last thing can somebody, you know, I’ve talked about before. It’s thinking about the difference between crisis conditions and chronic conditions. August 11th and 12th, that white supremacist attack on a city, at a university, and an idea of who we need to be together was a critical moment. But when crisis repeats time and time and time again then you’re in a chronic condition. Not trying to be after, not trying to be done with, but saying that this is a chronic brokenness and challenge. If we can live that with conviction, I think faculty will want to be here to join an enduring work.
DMcD: Thank you. I’ll I want to add one thing. Not that I was asked about. I love Jacob wrestling with the angel. But I also like the story of Nehemiah and Nehemiah has many opponents. I’ve come to learn in my life that opposition is the price of favor. And opposition, however difficult it is to confront, it’s typically a sign that you’re doing something right. And so when sanballat and Tobiah and the rest of the naysayers down below keep calling for Nehemiah to come down off the wall he says” I have a job to do, I have a job to do” and at no time does he permit their distractions which then turned into rumors which then turn into lies which then turn into paranoiac speculations to pull him off the wall and I think we have to stay on the wall. We have to stay on the wall.
JP: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for time. Is there anything else you’d like to say before concluding? I think that was a fantastic conversation. Good, we’ll definitely be keeping stay in touch about the progress as we mentioned, we’ll share whatever clips that we plan to use and be sure to pass them all to you ahead of time.
IB: What do you want me to… I can’t remember, are you going release all at once or sequentially?
DMcD: No, no, sequentially.
JP: Hopefully month by month. We’re actually meeting with the bicentennial fund that’s what is funding this podcast series. We’re meeting with them tomorrow morning and so we’re going to nail down kind of the production and release schedule. The tentative plan was to release month by month, starting in fall, starting this fall possibly mid to late September, but if we speak with the bicentennial and realize that it’s better to release, you know closer together and you know and have more time on the front end to produce then we might go for that one as well. But obviously we want to be sure that we leave ample time for all of our collaborators and the people that we’ve interviewed to be able to review [30:00] the material before releasing.
Yeah. Thank you so much for your time.
[Idle conversation following the interview]