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Bridging Divides

University of Richmond President Dr. Ronald Crutcher encourages Trinity students to practice having difficult conversations
Dr. Ronald Crutcher, president of the University of Richmond, has said some of the best lessons in leadership he’s learned have come not from the boardroom or the classroom — but in the practice room as a chamber musician. “In chamber music, you have to learn how to give criticism and take criticism — and obviously you can't take it personally, he said. “And that's a critical part of being a leader of any organization, learning how first to accept criticism and listen... and make your own decision — whether or not you agree or disagree."

Crutcher, who is also a distinguished classical cellist and professor of music, was the guest of honor at a virtual assembly on the morning of March 31, 2021, invited to speak to students, faculty, parents and alumni about his recently published memoir, “I Had No Idea You Were Black.” Student leaders of Trinity’s Black Alliance Initiative, Chaz Sutton ’22, Chandler Grant ’22, Cameron Walker ’24 and Adele Wilkes ’23 introduced Dr. Crutcher and moderated the program with questions. 

For the students in the audience, Crutcher emphasized the importance of strong mentors throughout his own life. As a child in Cincinnati, heard Rev. Martin Luther King preach at. Zion Baptist Curch and was inspired to pursue music professionally after meeting Corretta Scott King. "Keep practicing hard,” she told the young Crutcher. “The New York Philharmonic just appointed its first black player and you could be there one of those days so practice."  A music professor in Ohio then recognized his talent on the cello and taught personally from the age of 15. And as an adult, Bryce Jordan, the former president of Penn State, who told him one day over lunch that he should become a college president.

But it was his experience studying music in Germany on a Fulbright that truly transformed his life. “In Germany I rarely thought about race,” he recalled. “This surprised me but it was only when I stepped away from life in the United States that I realized how much energy that topic had consumed. As a student, I'd spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how people, particularly white people, were going to react to me. It was exhausting. In Germany by contrast, I felt unencumbered. ...I was a citizen of the world now and I'd never felt so free." The five years abroad also helped him appreciate being an American. After considering staying in Germany for good, he decided to return to raise a family. “I wanted my children to grow up knowing their family, knowing their roots, and being proud of their black heritage.”

Student questioners were particularly interested in Crutcher’s vision for the role that the college experience can have on bringing people together. “Residential colleges and universities should be crucibles for helping students learn how to live in a democratic society,” he said. When most students come to college, he said they don’t come equipped with the tools or experience to reach across cultural, racial, ideological, religious divides. “It takes practice,” he said. " It takes practice to learn how to have difficult conversations with people who have a different perspective than you, a different political or ideological perspective. And sometimes it gets a little uncomfortable, but that's okay… You don't have to link arms and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ It's really about respect, basic human respect. We're all children of God."
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