Reuben Brigety at a welcome reception in Cravens Hall on the day of his election as vice-chancellor in February. Soon after, the world would change.
A Man to Meet the Moment
Reuben Brigety agreed to be Sewanee’s 17th vice-chancellor just weeks before the world exploded in crisis. Now, with his tenure starting during one of the most challenging periods in Sewanee history, the global statesman will draw on a world of experience to lead the University.
By Buck Butler, C’89
On the morning of his election by the Board of Trustees in February, the man who would soon be named 17th vice-chancellor of the University of the South woke up in a comfortably appointed second-floor golf-course-side room in the Sewanee Inn. Just below where he stood was the former site of a dining establishment that would have refused him service based on the color of his skin before it closed in 1962.
Leelie Selassie captured this photo of Reuben Brigety pausing for a moment of reflection in their room at the Sewanee Inn on the morning of his election.
But after Reuben E. Brigety II got dressed and ready for what would turn out to be an historic day, he wasn’t thinking about the Claramont Restaurant in the former incarnation of this inn. Instead, he paused at the window to take in the sweeping view across the snow-covered fairways of the Course at Sewanee, looking east, in the direction of the legendary Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, where Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and hundreds of other activists readied for the battles of their day. “I was just thinking about the history of that,” Brigety says later. “About the civil rights warriors who were trained there and who would not have been welcomed to set foot on the Domain—and how much things have changed in half a century.”
Just how much things have changed became apparent later that day at a welcome reception for Brigety and his wife, Dr. Leelie Selassie, that included the entire University community. Sewanee’s first African American vice-chancellor was introduced to a thunderous, extended ovation, and when he moved to the podium to speak, the loudest cheers were coming from a group of students of color on the front row. Brigety smiled warmly and surveyed the room before his eyes landed on this pod of happy students. He looked at them and then, smiling slyly, crossed his arms over his chest in a “Wakanda Forever” sign while the students laughed and hooted. The moment was so brief that most people behind the front row of standing guests likely missed it. But the students saw it—a flash of recognition, a fleeting moment of connection.
“I suspect that my election helped those students feel as if they were being seen,” Brigety says when asked about it later. “Because it’s one thing to say that we’re all equal and equally valid and our experiences are all worth considering, and it’s another thing to actually demonstrate it.”
After meeting the scores of students who lined up to shake hands with Brigety and Selassie, the couple flew home to Washington in high spirits. But there would be little time to celebrate. “We went back to D.C. floating on air,” Brigety says. “And then we hear this business about this virus, and we have to pivot very quickly. Then, in a rapid four-week succession, you had the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and the killing of Breonna Taylor and then the Central Park birdwatching incident with Chris Cooper and then the killing of George Floyd.”
It’s unlikely that the search committee for the 17th vice-chancellor asked candidates how they would lead the University through a global pandemic or a national reckoning with race when they were interviewing them over the fall and winter, but they scarcely could have found a person better prepared to face 2020’s monumental challenges than Reuben Brigety.
As U.S. ambassador to the African Union, Brigety helped lead the international response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. His wife is a critical-care physician whose focus is on advanced life support and ventilator management, and who has worked exclusively with COVID-19 patients since March. Just the fourth African American to serve as brigade commander at the U.S. Naval Academy and the son of the first African American to graduate from the University of Florida Medical School, Brigety has led institutional diversity initiatives throughout his career.
With his specific experience and set of skills, Reuben Brigety may not just be capable of steering the University through a particularly trying time, he might be exactly the right person at the right time.
Like Sewanee itself, Brigety is a native Southerner with Oxbridge connections, and when he was reading up on the University in preparation for the job, he came across one possible etymology for the word “Sewanee” that resonated with him: “My understanding is that it might be a Shawnee word that, loosely translated, means ‘one who was wandering on a journey but has found his place.’”
“That’s how I feel.”
Reuben E. Brigety II was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, to an obstetrician-gynecologist father and a speech therapist mother. Brigety’s grandmother raised his father in segregated Daytona Beach, where she worked as a schoolteacher during the academic year and as a maid at resorts in upstate New York during the summer to earn additional money to send her two sons to Morehouse College.
Like many only children, Brigety was preternaturally mature at a young age. In fourth grade, he took an interest in horseback riding, a passion that has lasted his entire life (on weekends, he can often be found riding trails on the Domain). As a teenager, he developed a fascination with issues of war and national security. He devoured Tom Clancy novels, and loved the idea of working in intelligence to identify and neutralize threats to national security. He decided at age 14 that he wanted to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, and everything he did in high school was done with that goal in mind.
He earned admission to the Naval Academy, where he excelled and was eventually named brigade commander, the leader of the Brigade of Midshipmen, the academy’s student body. In the fall of 1994, Brigety led the parade of 4,000 midshipmen during homecoming weekend. Celebrating their 45th reunion, members of the Naval Academy Class of 1949 were among the reviewing party that day, including the first African American graduate of the Naval Academy, Cmdr. Wesley Brown. After the parade, Brigety was standing at the reviewing tent, he says, “and Wes Brown, who was the most affable man you ever met, came up to me and was sobbing like a baby. He said, ‘Look how far we’ve come since I was here.’”
After graduating from the Naval Academy with a degree in political science, Brigety spent two years in England at the University of Cambridge, where he earned a master’s degree in international relations. He then served two years of active duty in the U.S. Navy and entered training to be a submarine officer.
While training at Submarine Officers School in Charleston, South Carolina, Brigety had little time off for recreation, but when he did, he often used it to go salsa dancing. One night Brigety was dancing at a nightclub and, he says, “I saw this beautiful woman across the dance floor.” Brigety asked Leelie Selassie, then a medical student, to dance. She said no, but a drink and dates followed. “The second date ended with my being in the hospital from a concussion from an ice skating accident,” Brigety says. “Because I didn’t know how to ice skate, but I couldn’t say I didn’t know how to ice skate.” Brigety and Selassie overcame the relationship’s inauspicious launch, and Brigety eventually asked her to marry him, he says, “because she is, among other things, one of the strongest women I’ve ever met.”
Vice-Chancellor Brigety with his wife, Dr. Leelie Selassie, their sons Redda (left) and Roebel, and family dog Buna.
Dr. Leelie Selassie was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Following the assassination of Emperor Haile Selassie and the government takeover by a Communist regime in 1975, her family fled Ethiopia and came to the United States as refugees when Selassie was four years old. They were one of 10 Ethiopian families to make it to the United States that year. Brigety is clearly in awe of his wife, her personal story, her strength, and the work she has done over the past several months to save lives in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. He compares her to one of his Naval Academy classmates, Doug Zembiec, a U.S. marine who was killed in Fallujah, Iraq, and who earned the nom de guerre “the Lion of Fallujah” for the courage with which he fought during the 2003 Battle of Fallujah. “I remember him saying ‘Look, nobody wants war, but if you’re going to have it, send me.’ And that’s kind of like Leelie. ‘Nobody wants to be involved in this pandemic, but if it’s going to be somebody, let it be me.’”
Brigety requested and received an honorable discharge from the Navy to return to Cambridge and earn a doctor of philosophy in international relations. From there, his career rise through higher education, government, nongovernmental organizations, and diplomatic service was meteoric, including roles as a professor of government and politics at George Mason University; researcher with the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch; special assistant at the U.S. Agency for International Development; director of the Sustainable Security Program at the Center for American Progress; senior advisor for Development and Security to the U.S. Central Command Assessment Team; deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration; and deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of African Affairs. In 2013, he was appointed U.S. ambassador to the African Union and permanent U.S. representative to the UN Economic Commission for Africa.
Brigety says that the highlights of his career in both nongovernmental and government work have been the opportunities he’s had to engage during moments of crisis to make a difference for his country and the world. He was ambassador to the African Union in 2014 when the Ebola crisis broke out in West Africa. The embassy received epidemiological projections for the disease outbreak from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and Brigety grasped the implications for the continent. He called the chairperson of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, on a Saturday, and the two met at her office to discuss the severity of the situation. “It was August,” Brigety says, “And I said, Madame Chairperson, if we don’t do something about this exponential growth, you’ll have a million dead Africans by January.” Zuma is a physician, and she quickly understood the danger. She got the African Union Peace and Security Council to declare a health crisis as a threat to the peace and security of the continent for the first time ever, which gave the council the legal standing to mobilize healthcare workers from across Africa to travel to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea to provide direct care to infected patients. Brigety also helped mobilize the U.S. government to provide unprecedented amounts of assistance to the African Union—personal protective equipment, money, airlifts, and training. “That was particularly gratifying,” Brigety says. “I lost years off my life from it, I’m certain. But it was really gratifying.”
During his service as ambassador, Brigety and Selassie were stationed in Addis Ababa, the city Selassie’s family had fled some four decades before. One of the most poignant moments of Brigety’s service came in 2015 when he helped organize the visit of President Barack Obama to the African Union, the first time a sitting U.S. president had ever been to Ethiopia and the first time a U.S. president had addressed the African Union. As part of that visit, the Ethiopian government hosted a state dinner for President Obama in Jubilee Palace, the former residence of Emperor Haile Selassie, the man whose assassination had instigated his wife’s family’s departure from the country. “To be able to take my wife, who had to flee that country as a refugee when she was four, to come back to a state dinner at Jubilee Palace as the wife of the U.S. ambassador welcoming the U.S. president there,” Brigety says, “was very special.”
In 2015, Brigety was selected as dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University, a role he was serving when Sewanee came calling in the fall of 2019. A representative from a search firm contracted to help Sewanee find a new vice-chancellor asked Brigety if he’d be interested in the job and, he says, “The first thing I asked was ‘Are they ready for a Black president?’ They assured me that that would not be an issue.” He received a packet of information about the University and was quickly intrigued. “The more I read, the more I thought, ‘This place is awesome,’” he says. “13,000 acres, liberal arts, an Oxbridge connection, a strong intellectual tradition, and a broad range of majors.” And then he came to campus for a visit. “You go to All Saints’ Chapel and it’s got the crests of Oxford and Cambridge right there,” he says. “It’s like, I get this. Our family is very big into the outdoors. I lived in the South, my wife did her medical degree in the South. We were like, ‘We can do this.’” He toured the equestrian center and met the miniature pony that serves as a mascot for the equestrian program. “I got to meet Tigger,” he says. “And I was like ‘Sold! Done!’”
When asked if he was surprised that Sewanee was, in fact, ready for a Black president, Brigety says he was encouraged by many signs—including the fact that the United States had already had its first Black president and that Sewanee’s Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation was well underway—and yet, he says of Sewanee, “It hadn’t happened yet.” He notes that he met his wife at Club Trio in Charleston, just 200 meters from Emanuel AME Church, “where in 2015 a young man from South Carolina from a small town not unlike Sewanee, bathed in the ideology of the Confederacy, drove two hours to a prayer meeting and sat with a group of decent Christians, prayed with them for an hour, shot them one by one, and left one alive to tell the tale for the purpose of starting a race war. Two years later, Charlottesville happens. So the notion that we are past this is not supported by the empirical data. But, the good news is that we have a choice. We—the country, our region, this University—can decide where we’re going to go.”
Brigety was hoping not to focus on race during his first year in Sewanee. He wanted to give the Sewanee family some time to get to know him first. But the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed made that idea impractical. The day after he took office in June, Time.com published a powerful essay by Sewanee’s new vice-chancellor about the national reckoning on race and the expectations of the newest generation of college students. “The young people who are protesting in the streets this summer, and who will be sitting in our classrooms in the fall, do not want progress,” he wrote. “They want change. Inherent in the concept of progress is the notion that some degree of imperfection is understandable and inevitable on the path to achieving a worthy ideal. However, when the object of progress is the recognition and respect of one’s humanity by their own government and fellow citizens, the compelling questions to answer are how much imperfection is tolerable and for whom is it acceptable.”
Brigety says he doesn’t know what the ongoing conversation around race will look like in Sewanee, but he notes that today’s students of color don’t have any lived experience for accepting different treatment as a matter of race. They have been taught from an early age that everybody is equal. The first U.S. president of which they were consciously aware was Barack Obama. “So they are appropriately impatient for any responses to the current crises which are anything other than ‘This has to be different,’” he says. Brigety first plans to listen to students to learn about their experiences at Sewanee. “I’m brand new, I’m just coming in,” he says. “I’m interested in their perspectives on how our community needs to change.”
Brigety has worked hard throughout his career on matters of diversity, particularly in the context of the foreign policy establishment, and he knows that sometimes when a diversity initiative is carried out, people think the conversation can end. “Some folks would say, ‘We’ve had the brief. Why do we have to talk about diversity again?'” he says. “What I would say is, look, I’m a Christian. It would never occur to me to say I went to Sunday School once back in 1978—Father, Son, Holy Ghost, I got it. Right? No, you continue to go because the nature of your understanding changes as life circumstances change, as you grow in that faith, and as you learn with it. I think quite frankly this country is having a moment where a lot of really decent people who are not people of color, who are certainly not Black, had no idea about the level of pain and inequity that many of their friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens in the African American community are feeling.”
Before he can lead a campus-wide dialogue about race, Brigety has to grapple with the other of 2020’s twin global challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the time when all classes were moved online suddenly in the spring semester, the University has been planning for restarting in-person classes, with parallel remote-learning options, for the fall semester. The groundwork for bringing students back to campus was laid by Vice-Chancellor John McCardell and his executive team and by extensive and tireless planning by University faculty and staff. That planning has continued at a furious pace since Brigety took office.
The University’s plan for reopening safely depends on extensive testing of both students and employees as well as a number of adjustments to both student and academic life to allow appropriate social distancing. As students arrive, they’re immediately tested for COVID-19 and results are available in a matter of hours, thanks to a cooperative agreement between the University and Baylor Esoteric and Molecular Lab in Chattanooga. Sewanee’s relative remoteness offers an opportunity to create a metaphorical “bubble” that helps limit potential spread of the virus, and Brigety has become fond of urging the entire community to “#ProtecttheBubble.”
“The only thing that is going to allow us to stay open for the duration of the semester is the individual behavior of everybody on the Domain, principally our students,” Brigety says. “If they follow the public health guidance and mask and socially distance, we have a shot at getting through this. As I said to student leaders the other day, look, I need you all to step up and hold each other accountable and do what’s necessary.”
The University has hired two public health professionals to help guide decision-making during the pandemic and to monitor key data, including the infection rate. Brigety says that if the infection rate stays at or below one—meaning that on average each infected person in turn infects only one or less than one other person—the University should be able to remain open for on-campus learning.
To further encourage compliance, Brigety has also offered another message for students: “I told them that when this is all over, I promise you we are going to have a party that makes Coachella look like a funeral.”
Even with its challenges, Brigety expects his first year in office to be a “year of discernment” for the University that will include a formal, facilitated process for considering elements of a strategic direction for the next five years. He emphasizes that the result of this discernment will be a new strategic plan—not one that will sit on a bookshelf and collect dust but one with “some very specific actionable objectives that we can agree on.” It’s too soon to say what those objectives might be, but Brigety wants to focus the process on a larger goal to put the University in a position to compete with the best institutions in the country: preeminence. “That means preeminence that is objective, that is consistent, that is undeniable,” he says.
“How do we preserve and enhance what is quintessentially Sewanee while also developing other aspects of our identity, our life, our mission such that we can be consistently, reliably, objectively, indisputably recognized as one of the top liberal arts colleges and seminaries in the country?” he says. “I believe that our path to institutional survival lies in achieving elite national excellence. Now, there’s a reasonable debate about how we get there. But I’m convinced that’s what we have to do.”
One idea Brigety has floated more than once is that Sewanee might become what he calls “the Aspen of the South,” a place where people from across the region and even the country come for regular conferences and festivals around art, politics, music, and education. His vision for this idea includes people coming to learn and to share ideas while also pursuing recreational opportunities on the Domain and supporting local restaurants and shops with their business. “Particularly as our region is changing and as we begin to rethink what it means to be Southern—who belongs in that space and how do we define it—I think it’s a very exciting prospect, particularly now. And if you take a look at other places that have done this—Aspen, Sedona, Breckenridge, Banff—other than the skiing, all those places were like Sewanee, off the beaten track. But it took intentional development to do that.”
Reuben Brigety relates a story from his Naval Academy days that might be telling about his approach to leadership, especially in a time of crisis. After freshman year, midshipmen traditionally take part in “Seamanship Summer,” an opportunity to get their sea legs and some experience serving on a vessel in the open ocean. So in the summer of 1992, Brigety and five of his classmates boarded a 44-foot sailing sloop bound for Bermuda with two Navy officers. What could have been an idyllic trip turned ugly when the boat ran into some vicious weather, with 30-knot winds kicking up 10-foot waves for hours on end. The inexperienced midshipmen struggled to cope.
“It was midway through the transit,” Brigety says, “and my buddy and I were hanging over the side rail, puking our guts out. I counted: I vomited 36 times in that transit. We were just feeling completely listless, completely sorry for ourselves.”
One of the officers on board was Capt. Wilson Denver Key, who had flown F-4s over Vietnam and had spent five years as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton. In the midst of their suffering, Capt. Key asked the young midshipmen how they were doing.
“Not well, sir.”
“He said, ‘Yeah, I understand,’” says Brigety. “‘It’s kind of like that time the Viet Cong tortured me for six months and made me stand on my head and eat fish heads every day for a month. So, I understand your pain.’”
Thinking back now on this lesson from long ago, Brigety says, “That’s exactly it. You suck it up and you get back to it.”
So, if you’ll excuse the vice-chancellor, 2020 is calling, and he’s got to get back to it.