On Saturday, when deadly violence unfolded in the sleepy, college town of Charlottesville, some 20 first-year MBAs—all incoming students of color at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business—gathered together. It was supposed to be little more than a get together at the student housing complex.
But after the city was beseiged by hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, the meet-and-greet would become a place for an outpouring of emotion, the most poignant moment of that hellish day for Martin Davidson, a long-time leadership professor at Darden and the school’s chief diversity officer.
When he walked into the room, the professor could literally feel the anguish and pain. “These students were terrorized, fearful and deeply distraught,” recalls Davidson. “This was their very first weekend in Charlottesville. Now they were questioning coming here in the first place. They were full out scared to death.”
‘THE SYMBOLIC IMPACT OF FRIDAY’S TORCH-LIT MARCH ON CAMPUS WAS PROFOUND’
For Davidson, a 54-year-old African-American professor who has taught at Darden since 1998, the experience was just as deeply disturbing. “Often times, I think our white colleagues may have not clearly understood the gravity of the situation and still don’t appreciate the impact on people of color,” he says. “Some of that has to do with the natural divides we have about race and culture. But the symbolic impact of this was profound. Young white men marching through the streets with torches equates to fear and death for black people.”
In that room full of alarm and panic, Davidson found himself overcome with a sense of melancholy. “I had the feeling of just deep sadness,” he recalls. “The whole idea that any of our students would have to be exposed to this and be caught off guard like this was really sad. It choked me up.”
Over a couple of hours, Davidson managed to have what he describes as a “calming conversation” with the frightened students. “This is not Charlottesville,” he told them. “This is a single day. This does not happen here. This is an extraordinary situation.”
‘PEOPLE ARE RESILIENT AND DEFIANT, WATCHFUL AND AWAKENED’
In fact, over the 19 years that Davidson and his wife, Rachel Bagby, have lived in Virginia, the first time the Cleveland-born professor has ever lived south of the Mason-Dixon line, he had always felt welcome. “There are some people who in light of this incident now say, ‘See, I told you so. I told you what kind of place this is.’ But for me this has been a community where I have always felt welcome and a part of.”
Davidson has observed the weekend’s disaster from a unique perch. After earning his PhD in social psychology from Stanford University, he has spent his professorial life exploring emotion, conflict, and differences in identity. Davidson, who teaches the core MBA course Leading Organizations, has written extensively on why diversity efforts often fail in corporate settings and how to make those efforts more successful.
In the days that followed the outbreak of rage and hate on Saturday, he believes Charlottesville may have changed forever. “People broadly throughout the city and the university are resilient and defiant, watchful and awakened in some ways to the possibility of how this quiet sleepy town could be so vulnerable. People are letting go of the fantasy that this is a perfect protected place.”
Davidson, who lives on a farm 30 miles southwest of the city in Nelson County, first heard of the Friday night protests on social media at his home. That was the evening when hundreds of white nationalists, dressed mostly in khaki pants and white polo shirts, strolled through the UVA campus with kerosene-burning torches chanting “Blood and soil!” “You will not replace us!” “Jews will not replace us!”
WHITE SUPREMACISTS PARADED PAST THE FRONT DOOR OF THE DARDEN DEAN
In a procession meant to evoke a Hitler Youth march, they paraded down the university’s hallowed Lawn, past the front door of Darden Dean Scott Beardsley, at his home in Pavilion I. Beardsley’s brother and nephew, in town to visit his home, were turned away by police. The Unite the Right protestors climbed to the Rotunda, the academic heart of the university, and converged on a statue of Thomas Jefferson.
“I had no idea this was even going to happen,” says Davidson. “I saw it on social media and it was more kind of like a WTF. It was a question of what is going on? For me it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there must be hundreds and hundreds of these people.’ It was really disorienting, and there was violence happening even during that march. One faculty member was burned by the tiki torches. It was a real mess.”
The next morning, Davidson was back on campus in a Darden auditorium to welcome an incoming class of Executive MBA students. As he was walking out of the session, he checked his email only to find that a state of emergency was about to be called and the campus was to be closed. The school would ultimately receive permission from the Governor of Virginia to allow the students to stay at the school—about a mile and one-half from where violent clashes would occur.
“That was deemed the safest situation,” says Davidson, who then walked to the student housing complex to have his meeting with incoming first-year MBA students mostly from The Consortium, the non-profit organization that encourages minority business school enrollment.