As he writes in his new book, Higher Calling: The Rise of Nontraditional Leaders in America, Scott Beardsley brought a unique skill set to his job as dean of Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. After more than a quarter-century at McKinsey & Company, he had never before held a position in academia, yet he’d led the talent development of McKinsey’s more than 12,000 professionals and was instrumental in the launch of the McKinsey Academy, a technology-enabled learning platform. In many ways Beardsley exemplifies the kind of nontraditional leader he writes about, an archetype now on the rise in corporate, government, and academic America.
But even with his wide range of skills and experiences, nothing prepared Beardsley for the sight of a horde of white supremacists marching by torchlight outside his front window.
Beardsley describes to Poets&Quants the night of August 11, when the tranquil pre-convocation campus of the University of Virginia was overrun with tiki torch-bearing “alt-right” activists chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil!” — and how, in a long and storied career replete with successes, he had never felt such a terrible, nauseating sorrow.
“The event that happened the Friday evening with the white supremacist torch-bearers was literally outside my front door,” Beardsley says. “I live on the lawn at the University of Virginia, and of course that means I live in Charlottesville, and it was shocking. It made me very upset, and I was sad at the same time — angry, worried, many different emotions.”
A BOOK NEWLY PUBLISHED, BRIEFLY SIDELINED
Beardsley, a former McKinsey partner, took over the dean’s office at the Darden School in August 2015. It was his first job in academia after 26 years with the consulting giant, and it was a move he’d been contemplating for a long time, a big step in his search for new meaning in his professional life. Already he was well underway in the research that would lead to his book, Higher Calling, an exploration of the quiet revolution taking place in higher education. That fall he began sketching out the book’s direction and writing when he could find the time.
By August 2017, Higher Calling was finished, and galleys had been printed. But Beardsley’s thoughts were deflected from promoting his first book when, on the night of August 12 — almost two years to the day since he’d moved into the dean’s office — he and his family watched, mortified, as hundreds of white supremacists marched onto the Virginia campus, shouting slogans in a show of force ahead of the next day’s planned “Unite the Right” event in Charlottesville.
Many of them were armed. They carried store-bought torches, and raised their hands in a Nazi salute. The imagery — fire in the night — was more than symbolic.
“I was actually sickened by it — I felt like we’d been put into a time machine and put back into a movie that was somewhere way back in time,” says Beardsley, noting that the Darden Class of 2018 profile includes 20% domestic minorities and students from 38 different countries. “We define ourselves by inclusion, not by exclusion. We are a very diverse community, with people from all over the world. I had students whose first day in the United States was the day that these events happened. It was the first day they’d ever been in the United States! So these events have of course really shaken people.”
‘“WHY DID THIS HAPPEN HERE?” THE ANSWER IS, IT COULD HAPPEN ANYWHERE’
A life-long J.R.R. Tolkien fan — he even uses a quote from Lord of the Rings character Gandalf as an epigraph to his book — Beardsley told faculty in the wake of the events of August 11-12 that he felt as if some of the terrifying villains of Tolkien’s fantasy world had descended upon one of its quiescent redoubts. “What I really felt like — and this is what I expressed to the faculty and the staff soon after the events — is that the Nazgul had just flown into Lothlorien and spread evil through this wonderful place with no explanation,” he says. “Hate like that has no place in a university. That’s not what our community is all about.”
It would get worse. The next day, August 12, the white nationalists and neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville and amid the mayhem that ensued, a woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a car accelerated into a crowd of counter-protesters. A man charged in Heyer’s murder has been linked to the alt-right/white supremacists who rallied that day.
The community, including the university, mourned in shock, joined by much of the nation.
“I asked myself the question, ‘Why did this happen here?’ And the reality is, it could happen any number of places,” Beardsley says. “But perhaps one of the reasons that it happened here is exactly because the University of Virginia and Darden are very progressive places, they’re wonderful places and they knew that they would get a reaction.
“If you’re seeking to draw attention to yourself, you go to a place where you can draw the sharpest contrast between what you stand for and the place where you’re making your statement stands for.”