Casteen's final: Good, evil, Love, and 134 buildings
After a 20-year tenure, the final exercises May 23 couldn't help but be poignant and bittersweet for retiring President John Casteen. But for the reporters converging on Charlottesville from Roanoke, the Washington Post, and Rolling Stone, Casteen's work as leader of Virginia's flagship university took a backseat to something sadder.
Although the sun broke through the overcast sky as the Class of 2010 began its walk on the Lawn, the Sunday morning event was marked by the shadow of the murder of their classmate Yeardley Love three weeks earlier.
Clearly, it weighed heavily on Casteen himself. He honed his go-forth-and-make-the-world-a-better-place message into a more painful cautionary warning about "what you do with regard to good and evil."
Overcoming adversity, facing challenges–- those are the stock topics of graduation speeches. To invoke evil, even in the secular sense, as Casteen did, acknowledged the still-unfathomable tragedy that claimed one of the university's own, allegedly at the hand of another student.
"Just as the university has not been perfect in your time here, the world to which you go is flawed and, in some senses, corrupt," said Casteen. "In many parts of the world, evil rules and visits destruction and inhuman conditions of life on those least deserving of it and least able to protect themselves from harm." Unspoken: You don't have to leave Charlottesville to find evil and corruption.
That the world is a cruel place may not have been his theme before May 3, when Love's battered body was found. When he spoke of "acts of senseless violence that dumbfound us with their cruelty and disregard for human life," it was hard not think of what happened on 14th Street.
Invoking Thomas Jefferson is de rigueur at any occasion in Charlottesville, and the 181st final exercises at the university Jefferson founded was no exception. English scholar Casteen threw in Ralph Waldo Emerson for the call to put "study into action," and invoked Albert Camus for suggesting that "the evil that is in the world almost always comes out of ignorance."
But it was John Keats with whom Casteen opened and to whom he returned, reminding the 6,256 graduates of the "negative capability"–- the capacity to live with uncertainty and to accept that not every mystery can be solved– even at a top-rated university. The unspoken mystery for the Class of 2010: How could George Huguely have allegedly murdered Yeardley Love?
Knowledge is typically compared to a light. Citing Keats again, Casteen urged grads to "step out into the darkness, into unknowns" to the world where each person becomes good because that's what they choose.
One would expect Casteen's last commencement to be bittersweet as he ends an illustrious career whose influence touches one-half of UVA's living alums, as Rector John Wynne pointed out.
The Portsmouth native led two of the most ambitious capital campaigns at a public university, said Wynne, and 134 new buildings were erected during Casteen's tenure. His determination to diversify and make the university more accessible led to the creation of Access UVA, "a model for financial aid that has been emulated across the nation and now enrolls thousands of our students," said Wynne.
Not mentioned by Wynne: Casteen was one of the first university presidents to battle binge drinking on college campuses.
"This is in a sense a daunting moment for me, because I usually sit behind the speakers at our graduations," Casteen acknowledged. And while the tragedy was referred to obliquely with his focus on good and evil, Casteen's tribute to Love was poetry, when he listed for the Class of 2010 the sounds they'd remember:
Students talking to parents on their cell phones, ROTC running in the morning, traffic, the marching band practicing on Carr's Hill, carols at the end of the semester, children on the Lawn at Halloween, the Chapel's bells–- and, finally, "the cheers at games, no matter what the sport, and the name of Yeardley Love."