by James A. Bacon
Student veterans at the University of Virginia are up in arms, so to speak, about a decision by the Ryan administration to carve out space from the Veteran Student Center in Newcomb Hall to make room for an assistant dean of students.
“Our Veteran Student Center at UVA has been encroached upon,” states a Change.org petition launched by the UVa chapter of Student Veterans of America. “Over the summer of 2023, our conference room inside the VSC was reallocated as a Dean’s office without our permission or consult.”
The Center opened in 2021 as a place for student veterans and ROTC students to congregate. The petition characterizes the move as a step in the right direction to “address the shortfalls of UVA in comparison to other military friendly schools.” President Jim Ryan participated in the ceremonial opening, saying, “It’s a place that I hope will help remind you that you belong here at UVA.”
The conference room, designated for private studying, group projects, and SVA meetings, was decorated with the flags of the United States Army, United States Navy, United States Marine Corps, United States Air Force, and United States Coast Guard.
“Our students found sanctuary in the conference room,” the petition states. “Student Veterans may prefer the conference room since they have more in common with the room than they do in a crowded library. In some cases, it is the one space in the VSC that allows for experiencing grief.”
The student veterans were made aware this summer of Assistant Dean David A. Sauerwein’s “unannounced occupation” of the conference room, the petition says. Sauerwein, whose office had been located in Peabody Hall, is listed on the UVa website as being in charge of orientation and new student programs. He is also the liaison with the Posse Foundation, which provides scholarships to veterans. As assistant dean, Sauerwein played an important role in opening the center.
The student veterans had made multiple failed attempts to reach Ryan and the previous vice president of student affairs, Robyn S. Hadley. “The SVA has yet to receive an official response as to why these actions were taken without conferring with the military population on Grounds,” the petition says.
It is the petitioner’s opinion that actors in the scope of these events have disregard[ed] the Student Veteran and Military Affiliated population.
What are the University’s goals with the VSC? Why are we not being heard? Why is it difficult to get answers? What is it about the population that convinces University leaders that we are not a population that should be treated fairly and just?
The petition can be viewed here. At the time of this posting, it had garnered 277 signatures.
This is not the first time that Ryan has run afoul of UVa’s small veteran/military community. Shortly after assuming the presidency in 2018, he banned the 21-gun salute during veterans day ceremonies. After an outcry, he versed the ban. “Sometimes you make mistakes,” he averred on his Facebook page.
The controversy also may shed light on the mysterious departure of Robyn Hadley, the Dean of Students. Last month Ryan announced that Hadley, the highest ranking African-American administrator at UVa, would leave less than two weeks later. He gave no explanation, and she offered no feel-good quote as is customary when university officials leave on good terms. Initial speculation centered on the view that her departure was linked to an expected report into last year’s triple murder on the grounds that it was mishandled by the Office of Student Affairs. But the student veterans’ petition opens up the possibility that other issues may have entered into the picture.