Since the election, I haven’t slept in my dorm room once. I’ve slept on couches, futons, floors and unoccupied beds in my friends’ homes. At first, it came from a need to be with people who supported me and understood how scary this political moment is for young people who grew up under the liberal auspices of an Obama presidency and came of age politically in a time marked by progressive movements such as that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). But after I went home for clean clothes to find an anti-gay hate message written on my door, right next to a set of stickers spelling out “Vote 4 Hillary,” my couch-surfing took on new urgency. I was no longer searching for comfort from my peers — I was trying to preserve a sense of safety.
In the past month, highly visible hate crimes and bias incidents at the University of Virginia and in Charlottesville have increased rapidly, mirroring a national trend. A Star of David and the word “Juden” were spray-painted on an apartment complex popular with students; Muslim students in a residential college noted for its progressive population came home to “Terrorist” written outside their door; several officers in the university police force used the public announcement system on their police car to blast pro-Trump statements at students walking home after the results of the election became clear.
And, largely, the university’s response has fallen far short. The administration has sent emails with quotes from our esteemed founder Thomas Jefferson to quell students’ fears and bring the community together. Vague descriptions of the hate-based incidents were circulated to make us feel as if university officials were handling the situations. A protest and occupation of a Board of Visitors meeting revealed that many of the very people appointed by the governor to run our university weren’t even aware of the recent events.
Now, U-Va. is failing its students. The university is tasked with creating an environment in which all students can learn from some of the most accomplished faculty in the country. It is not succeeding. Our students are among the best and brightest, but the administration seems to think that we won’t recognize lackluster protection and response efforts for what they are: conciliatory at best, a dangerous precedent at worst.
If this school wants to commit itself to protecting students and creating a safe learning environment, it must do more than send emails meant to placate a terrified population. The university must thoroughly investigate and adjudicate all hate-crime incidents, including those committed by university employees. Placing police officers on paid administrative leave after they abuse their power to intimidate students while on duty is not enough.
The university must refuse to bend to any federal legislation that may be passed in the coming months and years that would directly harm its students. Female students deserve access to reproductive health services, undocumented students deserve access to education as well as protection from dislocation or deportation, and Muslim students deserve to learn at our university without fear. This school has the power to ensure these things, and it must take the side of student protection if it wishes to fulfill its mission of educational excellence.
Many will read this and call me a coddled child. If fear for my safety and the safety of my fellow students is childish, then so be it.
I expect more from my university, my community, my country. I expect safety, respect and tolerance. I deserve these things. As do we all. And if our universities do not reflect that with policies and protections that keep students safe and secure so that we may learn and grow, then the onus is on those of us with the ability to push for change to do just that.
I hope to return to my dorm, to sleep in my own bed and feel safe there. I’m not sure if that will happen soon. I’m not sure if my university really cares.
Ian Ware is a second-year student at the University of Virginia studying foreign affairs and American studies.