The University of the South (familiarly known as Sewanee, for the Tennessee town in which it is located), is ranked among the nation's Top 50 liberal arts colleges.
In February 2020, the University of the South’s Board of Trustees appointed Ambassador Reuben E. Brigety II as Sewanee's 17th Vice-Chancellor and President.
Brigety, a native Southerner whose life and distinguished career have taken him from the U.S. Naval Academy to the University of Cambridge, and from Africa to Washington, D.C., was selected after a national search led by Susan VanGilder, Matthew Bunting, and Beth McCarthy of Storbeck Search.
In selecting Ambassador Brigety, the search committee agreed that he was uniquely positioned, as he himself had put it, to “bring Sewanee to the world and the world to Sewanee.”
Brigety previously served as Dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. Prior to becoming dean in 2015, Brigety had served as U.S. ambassador to the African Union for two years. In that role, he managed the strategic partnership between the United States and the African Union with an emphasis on democracy and governance, economic growth, and development. He also served as the permanent representative of the United States to the UN Economic Commission for Africa; and, earlier, as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of African Affairs, with responsibility for Southern African and regional security affairs.
Prior to his work in the policy arena, Brigety was an assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University and before that taught international relations at the School of International Service at American University. Before entering academia, he conducted research missions in Afghanistan and Iraq with the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch.
A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Brigety is a 1995 distinguished midshipman graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and holds a master’s degree in philosophy and a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Cambridge. He is married to Dr. Leelie Selassie, a critical care physician who published a moving account of the early days of the pandemic in the Sewanee Review, America’s oldest literary journal. They are raising two sons.
Reflections on the Search
Announcing Brigety’s appointment, the Rt. Rev. Robert Skirving, Chancellor of the University and Chair of the Board of Trustees, noted, “Reuben Brigety has spent his life in public service, as a naval officer, as a deputy assistant secretary of state, as an ambassador, and as an educator. Born as a child of the South, Reuben is now a man of the world.”
Brigety’s appointment followed a national search that began in September 2019. Brigety succeeded John M. McCardell Jr., who served 10 years as Vice-Chancellor and President. (Shelly Weiss Storbeck and Susan VanGilder led the search that resulted in McCardell's appointment.)
Jon Meacham, an alumnus and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian who served on the search committee, said, “In Ambassador Brigety we have been fortunate to find a bold and thoughtful leader who will bring to Sewanee the gifts of insight and of compassion that propelled him to the global stage. He’s a native Southerner with a remarkable journey that’s taken him from the U.S. Naval Academy to Cambridge, from Africa to Washington. Along the way Reuben has mastered the arts of diplomacy, of service, and of critical thinking. Devoted to the humane values of the Sewanee liberal-arts ethos, his life’s work is about the value of every soul and the essential role of reason in human affairs. We couldn’t have done better.”
Skirving added, “He will bring to Sewanee a rich global perspective and a strong record as a servant leader, traits that are surely critical to this University’s capacity to provide an excellent liberal arts education."
The University's graduate School of Theology, which offers master's level and advanced degrees, is highly regarded, and Skirving noted, "Reuben is also a person of deep faith, eager to support the work of the School of Theology. I am very excited that Reuben has accepted this new call to service."
Andrea Mansker, Professor of History and Chair, Women’s and Gender Studies, praised Brigety as "a transformational leader who is well positioned to help us build a distinctive, inclusive vision of our university that will appeal to a new cohort of globally minded students. Proposing to ‘bring Sewanee to the world and the world to Sewanee,’ he will help us raise our institution’s national and international profile as a model of excellence and advocacy in the liberal arts.”
Reflecting on the process that led to his appointment, Brigety recounted, “During the search process, I got a glimpse of what makes Sewanee so special—an intellectual rigor coupled with an unparalleled sense of community, and a strong sense of place that is inclusive of everybody who finds their way here. I was also encouraged to learn more about the University’s deep ties and ongoing commitment to the Episcopal Church, which help frame everything that is at the core of the institution. I look forward to all the conversations to come about how, collectively, we can help move Sewanee forward as an elite, national liberal arts institution that is both rooted in a very special place and welcoming to everyone who shares the University’s values.”
Moving Sewanee Forward
At the time of his election, Brigety may have been anticipating an uneventful first year on campus, but 2020 would bring events aplenty.
As Sewanee alumnus Buck Butler put it in “A Man To Meet the Moment,” a thoughtful account published on the University’s website: “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.”
Brigety’s first adaptation to the pandemic was to start his term of office in June 2020 rather than August as originally scheduled. And in response to the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed, he published a powerful essay in Time magazine 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 writes. “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.”
In the essay, he introduces himself as "the first African American to lead the University of the South" which was “founded by Episcopalian Confederates on the eve of the Civil War.” He adds, “I am also one of the few African Americans to lead a predominately white institution of higher education in the United States.
As many American colleges and universities begin to address their racial histories, which may include institutionalized racism or institutional wealth built upon the translatlantic slave trade and enslaved labor, Sewanee has been examining its own troubled legacy for some years now through the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race and Reconciliation.
Brigety describes it: “The Project chronicles and critiques the University’s relationship with slavery, Jim Crow, and the perpetuation of the so-called ‘Lost Cause’ of the Confederacy. Rooted in the social justice and faith traditions of the Episcopal Church, it seeks healing and reconciliation through an honest assessment of our past. There is scarcely an institution of higher education in the country that, by virtue of its historical roots or contemporary circumstances, cannot benefit from such an examination.”
As the Washington Post reported in March 2021, in some ways Brigety’s arrival on campus has accelerated and intensified Sewanee’s moral and racial reckoning.
What has become clear is that Brigety is a leader who will meet the challenge and who will move the University forward. Plans include continued review of building names and symbols around campus and recommend changes; increasing diversity among faculty and staff; ensuring that the University teaches its full and unvarnished history; and developing a truth and reconciliation program that would be a model for the South and for other institutions of higher education.
Storbeck Search is proud of the part we played in bringing Reuben Brigety and his impactful leadership to the University of the South. In a successful and long-term partnership that spans more than a decade, we have led ten searches on the University's behalf. Those searches include: Director of the Babson Center for Global Commerce, Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Vice President for University Relations, and Dean of Admission, in addition to the Vice-Chancellor searches of 2010 and 2020.