Leadership & Governance

Report Faults U. of Virginia on Response to White-Supremacist Rally

September 11, 2017

The University of Virginia could have done more to anticipate a white-supremacist rally that turned violent on the campus last month, and its police force did not attempt to enforce bans on open flames that might have halted the torch-wielding demonstrators before the situation got out of hand, according to an internal working group’s report released on Monday.

The working group, led by Risa L. Goluboff, dean of the university’s law school, concluded that UVa was predisposed to defend constitutionally protected free speech, as long as violence did not break out. Matters escalated, the report found, despite tools at the university’s disposal that might have defused the situation earlier.

The report lends credence to criticism from some student activists and professors, who have argued that the university failed to take seriously concerns that a demonstration might take place on August 11 on the university’s historic grounds.

Administrators and police officers relied on intelligence from the Virginia Fusion Center, a state and federal resource for sharing information on terrorist attacks, but did not "effectively verify and integrate the information it did receive from alternative sources," the report found.

One source, for example, notified the university police at 3:23 p.m., more than six hours before the march began, of a possible neo-Nazi demonstration on the campus. Even though the tip was "partial," the report states, "the university should have been more attentive" to it.

The report would seem to challenge previous statements by Teresa A. Sullivan, the university’s president, who suggested to a student that it was not UVa’s job to monitor "alt-right websites" that might have provided clues of what was to come.

“Don't expect us to be reading the alt-right websites. We don't do that.”
"Nobody elevated it to us," Ms. Sullivan said in a videotaped exchange with a student. "Don’t expect us to be reading the alt-right websites. We don’t do that. Now you guys have responsibility here too. Tell us what you know."

The report also cites missed opportunities to rein in the demonstration once the white nationalists lit Tiki torches, which were later employed as weapons, according to witnesses. The university’s "Open Burn and Flame" policy prohibits open flames without prior approval, and no such permission was granted. But the university’s police department was "not sufficiently aware of its authority to enforce this policy," the report found.

Nor did the police attempt to enforce a Virginia law that categorizes as a felony any attempt to intimidate people by burning an object in a public place. The law has been infrequently enforced since its enactment, in 2002, the report states, and "UPD did not readily recognize its potential applicability in this situation."

In the future, the report says, the university should strengthen its policy on open flames and intensify its enforcement. The university should also provide further training to its police officers to "better equip them to recognize the threshold between speech and violent intimidation."

Ms. Sullivan, in a written statement on Monday, described the report as a preliminary step in moving forward after the incident. The university has hired Margolis Healy, a consulting firm focused on campus safety, to review its safety and security protocols.

"I want to be very clear: What happened on August 11 on our Grounds, while unprecedented, was unacceptable," she said. "But we will not let it define us. It takes time to heal as a community, and we must do so together. This working-group report is an important step. Going forward, we must recommit ourselves to our core values and further enhance our inclusive, diverse learning and living environment."

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.