A Farewell Address

A.J. Collins '17
Outgoing SBA President

I’ve been thinking for a while now what I wanted to say in this address. Many other SBA Presidents use this space to discuss what they’ve accomplished during their term. But as that would be redundant to the State of the School Address, I figured I would do something else.

I see a lot of parallels between my election and Trump’s (procedurally, not substantively). You see, I was elected in a narrow, bitter election by a quirk of the electoral system my opponents underestimated. I was considered to be more of an outsider with a new “energy” to bring to the position.

A.J. Collins at the 2016 SBA Debates. Photo courtesy David Markoff. 

A.J. Collins at the 2016 SBA Debates. Photo courtesy David Markoff. 

Having won by one vote, the post-election fallout weighed on me heavily. I thought I had to please every person who voted for me because I didn’t want them to regret their choice. And if they regretted their choice, it felt like I retroactively lost.

So I set out to do the thing I thought was most necessary to achieve student progress. I had to befriend people that, just a few weeks prior, were throwing sometimes heinous accusations my way. Part of this was a necessity – Sami, Laura, and Will were not supporters of mine in the election – but part of it was because I was committed to not let division stand in the way of success.

As the year progressed, I faced a number of issues that I think are difficult and complicated. What is the appropriate balance between free speech and unity? How do you balance the men who have sex with men (MSM) ban on blood with a need for service? I wanted to serve as a moderate voice in each of these deliberations – reprimand, not expel; pause, but proceed.

Unsurprisingly, whenever I made these tough decisions, I had slanderous and hate-filled things thrown my way – you should’ve seen my inbox! But I told students I wanted to meet in person, and most of them just brushed it off. I think as law students and future lawyers, we should recognize that communication in the face of complication is our job; we cannot hold court from a keyboard.

I bring my experience forward for the purpose of making a greater point. At UVa, we sometimes use the term “collegiality” to gloss over the fact that we are afraid of confrontation. We ironically use “inclusive” as a way to ignore other opinions. Yet in doing so, we shrug off our burden as advocates by excluding those with whom we are uncomfortable and divergent.

There is an odd contrast, in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, between having two friends who refuse to speak to each other over a social media post and its fallout and a Muslim refugee and Trump supporter remaining incredibly close friends. Given the choice between these two UVa’s, I choose the latter – wouldn’t we all? But often we simply neglect to do that. In this respect, I think it is important that we remember that it is often necessary to sacrifice our own expression, our own platform, and our own comfort for the sake of ensuring the best outcomes, whether it be friendships or programs.

The degree to which individuals have empathy certainly varies. But, along with any degree of empathy should come sacrifice. It often took a great deal of sacrifice to remain stoic in conversations because I knew that being SBA President often came with the toll of surrendering certain personal opinions in order to maintain a neutral SBA. And it too takes a great deal of sacrifice to sit down face-to-face with people who call you a homophobe, ableist, and sexist.

I do not exempt the faculty and administration from my premise here. Sacrifice, at times, might require standing up to Main Grounds at risk of discord to ensure the best interests of your students. While we are part of a greater Academical Village, the job of leaders is to serve those whom they lead. 

A favorite quote of mine is that we “often judge others by their worst examples and ourselves by our best intentions.” Perhaps that speaks to sacrifice. Perhaps it speaks to empathy. I do not know. But I think this community often sorely lacks this perspective in its workings with others. In all fairness, most of humanity does too, but there is no reason we cannot be a trailblazer in this regard.

I wish everyone could serve as SBA President for one day. The dissonant pressures between competing groups and interests is perhaps the best way to build empathy, the best catalyst for sacrifice. It’s also the best real world training to be an associate, caught between your clients, the students, and your partners the administration.

At the end of it all, I say this: find a way to build others up, especially those with whom you disagree.

I conclude by wishing Steven the best of luck in his role, and I hope he finds it as significant and impactful as I did. To Toccara and Frances, you are both wonderful people and I’m thrilled to see the changes you’ll make for this school over this year and the one following it.

And to Sami, Will and Laura (well, you’re staying on for a second term, but), I say – we made it! I’m so glad for what we accomplished together this year and honestly I think we had a blast while doing it. Let’s keep #SnacksBeerandArtsandCrafts slash #FiftyShadesofWill slash #ThatOneArabicWordWeCouldNotTranslate alive. Thanks for being a great team.

As they say, mic drop. A.J. out.