Dean Groves’ commitment to U.Va. and loved ones — one day at a time

“I have tried to live my life with honesty, with integrity…I have never shied away from who I am.”

Words by Gracie Kreth.

Dean of Students Allen Groves has always believed in free speech. But when a group of white nationalists marched with through Grounds with torches and yelled anti-Semitic chants on the evening of Aug. 11, his belief in the right of free speech collided with his job as dean.

Groves was at home that Friday when he heard that the group of neo-Nazis would be marching on the Lawn. A far-right white nationalist rally was scheduled the next day, ostensibly to protest the Charlottesville City Council’s decision to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park). However, the plans to march through central Grounds came as a surprise to the University administration.

When he heard of the plans, he left his home in southern Albemarle County and arrived on Grounds to learn that University students had surrounded Thomas Jefferson statue north of the Rotunda.

“I went into the crowd of white supremacists,” Groves said, as he began recounting the event of Aug. 11 in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “I leaned in [to the students] and said, ‘It’s Dean Groves. It’s Dean Groves. Let me get you out of here.’”

The police had not arrived yet, so Groves rushed into the crowd to reach the students.

“Next thing I knew, one of the white supremacists threw one of the torches,” Groves said. “It hit me in the arm, and it cut my arm, and the flaming part fell to the ground … Within seconds, they started attacking several of the people around the statue.”

Pulling students out from the crowd, Groves and several others were maced in the chaos that erupted. Several others were injured during the protest as well.

Groves said he is a strong proponent of individual rights and freedom of speech. As questions arise about the limitations of the First Amendment on college campuses, Groves has been a fairly outspoken member of the community. He recently gave a lecture about “The Balance Between Free Speech and Bias” to the Kappa Rho Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. “We are at a stage right now in this country where across the spectrum, people do not want to listen to views that oppose their own way of thinking,” Groves told The Cavalier Daily. “And so with social media being what it is, you and I can only follow those people or website that we agree with and not anybody that we don’t. I think that is highly dangerous.”

He cautions students to be careful about suppressing speech at a time when society might be angry, afraid or frustrated because that may come back to haunt them. He encourages students to listen to speakers with opposing viewpoints and instead of shouting them down, he challenges students to ask tough questions.

“The reason we allow speech we deem hateful is to protect our rights to protest and freely speak out on controversial topics of the time,” Groves said. “Once we carve away at that core freedom, we may not like how much is swept into the category of banned ‘hateful’ speech.”

However, in the case of the events of Aug. 11 and 12 in Charlottesville, Groves said not all speech was protected.

“[The First Amendment] does not permit speech that qualifies as ‘incitement’ to commit imminent acts of violence,” Groves said in an email. “I believe certain speech by the alt-right/white nationalists on August 11 was hateful speech that is nonetheless protected by the Constitution, while other speech that night was likely incitement that is not protected speech. I also believe the use of torches in the context presented on August 11 was impermissible. Moreover, violence is not speech.”

As Groves enters his 11th year working in administration at the University, he has worked continually to protect students’ speech, especially helping raise the volume of minority voices around Grounds.

He believes in everybody’s right to be who they are and be respected for who they are,” Groves’ sister Tammie Collins said.

Groves said he has made it a goal of his time at the University to make sure every student has equal access and equal opportunity, and believes that some groups need more help than others to be heard.

“To be different in any society culturally is difficult,” Groves said. “It is easier to be white in this country than it is to be black. I have always viewed that there are probably groups of student who more need my support and intervention than others.”

Jack Chellman, a fourth-year College student and former Queer Student Union president, says Groves — who identifies as a gay man — has been involved with the LGBTQ community on Grounds.

“He always comes to the first meeting of the year, welcoming our new members and extending an invite to his office if someone were to need anything or any kind of support,” Chellman said. “He has made real contributions to the minority community.”

Groves said that changing the perception of his office from a scary place of punishment to a place where students feel comfortable to come to talk and seek support is his greatest achievement during his tenure as dean.

“By doing that, especially when you think about underserved populations and minority organizations, by being visible and talking with students and engaging with them, I think that’s the way create that sort of space,” Groves said. “It was not that way when I came into the position.”

Groves reached for a sheet of paper on his desk, a printout of a Google calendar. The itinerary showed meetings with students all day.

“Whenever a student invites me, I go,” Groves said. “Sometimes I’ll schedule myself for three dinners.”

But that day in particular was unusual, he said. Typically, he will have more meetings with administration, so that was a good day — the interaction with students is what Groves values and enjoys the most about his job.

“Whether it’s one on one or in groups, I love being able to engage with students and talk with students and hear about their experience and do what I can to help make this important part of their lives as valuable and as meaningful as it can be,” Groves said. “That’s the best part of the job.”

Groves said he wants to hear what students have to say and wants to support them in all the ways he is able.

“Individuals should have the right to express their own political and social views.” Groves said. “I would fully support the right of every student to take whatever position they believe. It is their right to express strongly-held views as long as it does not harm other people.”

Ironically, Groves says the most challenging aspect of his position is that he is not always free to speak his mind. Due to the high-ranking position he holds at a state university, Groves’ own freedom of speech is somewhat restricted. He cannot enjoy the same flexibility as most people, and is often forced to decline a handful of interviews or to make a statement.

Leaning back into his chair and folding his hands, he began reflecting on what’s brought him to Charlottesville and the University.

Young Dean Groves.

Groves was born in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. in 1960. During his senior year of high school, his father died unexpectedly from a heart attack. He attended Stetson College in DeLand, Fla. for his undergraduate degree because it was close to home, making it easy for him to check on his mom, he said. While there, Groves joined the Phi Kappa Alpha fraternity.

“When it’s done right, it can be a truly great experience for a young man,” Groves said. “Especially given the recent death of my father when I went to college, the older brothers in the fraternity played an important role in helping me get through that.”

He attended law school at the University and worked as the area housing coordinator for what was at the time the new dorms on Grounds. After graduation, Groves moved to Atlanta and joined a large law firm, Seyfarth Shaw, where he worked for 16 years and became a partner.

As an attorney, Groves worked in employment law, specifically dealing with trade secret disputes. Similar to his current position at the University, he mentored younger lawyers, helping them to decided what path they wanted to take in their own law careers.

“He gave me really good advice that I give to younger lawyers [now] when they are trying to specialize,” said Michael Elkon, one of Groves’ mentees. “He had everything at this big law firm, but he wanted something more and to make a decision [to leave the legal profession] takes guts and confidence. I respect the hell out of that.”

Nonetheless, Elkon said academica suits Groves a bit better. Litigation takes what Elkon called “fangs,” and although he said Groves had “fangs,” he didn’t like to employ them.

Groves and his husband, Adam Donovan-Groves, moved to Charlottesville in 2006. Groves became the development officer for the Division of Student Affairs at the University, and continued to work in this position as he became interim dean of students. In June 2008, he became the University’s associate vice president and dean of students.

Donovan-Groves began a wedding planning business, Donovan-Groves Events, for which he is acclaimed by both Vogue and Southern Living.

Groves said the University has welcomed them as it would any heterosexual couple, even before the two were legally allowed to marry. However, when asked about how he feels the University has treated them as a gay couple, Donovan-Groves said “mostly welcome,” followed by a long pause — he declined to elaborate on any specific issues.

Nonetheless, both say they love the University and the greater Charlottesville area. They enjoy going to the Blue Ridge Mountains and to vineyards, and often take their older, adopted dog Gracie on these excursions.

“U.Va. wasn’t my school, but I have come to love it,” Donovan-Groves said. “Allen is very happy here, and that makes me very happy.”

Groves said he is open about who he is and what he believes, and he works to help and protect others to do the same as they voice their beliefs.

“I have tried to live my life with honesty, with integrity,” Groves said. “I have never shied away from who I am.”

These are qualities Donovan-Groves said are Groves’ best, and Groves’ sister agreed.

“I want people to understand how much he cares,” Collins said. “It’s not an act — that’s who he is. He loves U.Va., and he loves his students.”

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The American Cousin

Finding a comfortable space as a second generation student

Words by Leo Dominguez.

I’ve known Akash Raje for three years. We lived in the same first year dorm at the University of Virginia. For at least the first few weeks of school, we were part of the same sparse collective of nervous 18 year olds, bound only by our mutual fear of eating alone. Even in this throng of kids slowly workshopping their college personalities and working new colloquialisms into their vocabulary, Akash looked comfortable. A brown boy with a large pair of headphones draped around his neck, an easy smile and an encyclopedic knowledge of hip-hop. He personified the casual and cool personality that the rest of us were still working hard to cultivate.

Akash was born in Detroit, Mich. in 1997 to Kshitija and Salil, who came to the United States from Mumbai, India in 1987 and 1991, respectively. They arrived at different times, but both with the explicit intention of establishing a solid foundation for their eventual children and the families they left behind. Though both had been living in Mumbai just prior to immigrating, they did not meet until a mutual friend arranged their introduction, kicking off a short romance followed by marriage in 1995, and, subsequently, Akash.

Akash has visited the family his parents left behind in India four times in his life. The first trip, at 3 years old, is just a vague assemblage of sights, sounds and smells, warmed by the natural optimism of youth. The second time, at 8 years old, is much more firmly embedded in his memory. It annoyed him. He was brought along to be introduced to family members who had heard tell of their American cousin but had never known him. However, even in the wash of love from wave after wave of extended family, young Akash wanted nothing more than to go home to Michigan. He arrived in Mumbai in the middle of monsoon season to scores of family members speaking Marathi: his family language; one that he understood but didn’t like to speak. In fact, he made a concerted effort to speak English.

“I knew the language, but I wasn’t confident in speaking, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t even make an effort because I wanted to be more American,” Akash said.

The entire trip had the same embarrassing feel as a mother planting a wet kiss on the cheek of her child in front of his friends. Akash’s indelible Indian heritage was a constant source of embarrassment in the states. The sense of exasperation when his mother and father drew looks speaking Marathi in public was multiplied tenfold when surrounded by his family members in his parent’s homeland. There, it was impossible to shy away from the overt markers of his Indian heritage.

Akash in his room at the University of Virginia. Photo by Leo Dominguez.

Visiting again four years later at 12 years old, the discomfort remained. Far from the home India should have been, it was an inconvenience. It was a necessary pit stop to appease his parent’s sentimentality and his extended family’s seemingly inexplicable yearning to see him.

This discomfort, even while surrounded by blood relatives who cared for him as though he had lived his entire life amongst them, is paramount to understanding the first generation American’s hybrid identity. At eight or 12 years old, to willingly “other” oneself is dangerous. This is especially true for a boy whose family, language and customs do not resemble those of his peers. Akash and young people like him aren’t one thing or the other, but rather a continual balancing act between finding a comfortable place in American spaces while also maintaining their parents’ cultural identity, inherently at odds with it.

It took eight years for Akash to return to India of his own volition. He was 20 years old and two years into his education at the University of Virginia. The university in Charlottesville dominates the town as a contemporary tribute to the aesthetic ideals of the gleaming South.

Broadly stated, the University is nearly 60 percent white, and almost half of the student body comes from families in the top 10 percent of income earners. In this landscape, Akash found himself sharing a freshman dorm hall with two other Indian students who spoke Marathi. There was solidarity in identity for Akash at the University. The Indian Student Association is one of the largest cultural organizations on campus and, of minority groups at the University, Asian-Americans have the largest population at 13 percent. The comfort of this community, however, was not enough for the self-actualization of his Indian identity.

The connection to the culture is limited to the Indian-American population … I wanted to define what it meant to be Indian. I wanted to meet my family,” Akash said. “The way I was able to be there is a way I’m not able to be here.”

Akash spent a few weeks of his summer in Shrivardhan, a small coastal city in the west Indian state of Maharashtra. This small fishing town, home to his mother’s family, rises in stark contrast with Charlottesville, the place he had called home for the last two years. In Shrivardhan, every view was colored by a cousin’s smile, every conversation crackled in his mother’s tongue and every step was taken alongside a brown-skinned compatriot, a hypothetical Akash analogue who had never left the coast. Far from awkwardness or exasperation at how unabashedly Indian the entire experience was, Akash found himself in a new, comfortable place.

Photo by Akash.

He was picked up at the airport by his aunt, a woman he already knew well, and driven into Shrivardhan. During his stay in the city, he was constantly visiting and being introduced to distant and often non-blood related aunts or uncles with whom he had no real connection. The sheer number and ephemeral nature of these interactions left Akash initially awash in a whirlwind of names and faces, each one fading from memory as another smile shifted in to replace it.

Not all of his time in India was devoted to small talk. He attended a reunion of his maternal extended family. There, he found a vibrant patchwork of similar faces, the room emanating with a warmth that came as much from the number of people as from the sheer force of love. It was nearly every single member of his mother’s extended family, from rambunctious three year olds to the stoic, pensive grandparents and great-grandparents. Each one grinning broadly at the sight of their American cousin, saying hello in the Marathi that Akash now spoke with confidence. It was if they’d been waiting for him and had always been waiting for him.

“I was astonished and amazed by the unique lives that everyone lives and the fact that this is my family and this could have been my life as well,” Akash said. “It was just me putting my best effort to know them and understand them. In the short period of time I was with them I tried my best to just be with them.”

“I definitely grew up wishing I was a white kid.”

-Akash Raje

Until that point, Akash’s ways of expressing his culture were limited to his own imagination of what such expression would look like. His current love for hip-hop, developed in his early teens, grew out of a need to define his identity.

“I did certainly see it that way, I think the identity was developed more as the non-white identity, so it allowed me to feel my non-whiteness, my browness,” Akash said.

Photo by Akash.

Though the art and the music he co-opted couldn’t be tracked back to his actual heritage, it was at least a departure from the norm of whiteness that he had been navigating most of his life. During this trip, the tension between his actual sense of self and the one he thought he was supposed to have disappeared. In his youth, Akash didn’t think of overtly Indian features as something to be proud of, and that manifested itself in his romantic relationships.

He didn’t like Indian girls.

“I definitely grew up wishing I was a white kid,” Akash said.

In his early years of high school, Akash learned to value the comfort that comes from developing relationships with individuals whose backgrounds are similar to his own. However, that pragmatic valuation of an intra-cultural relationship was shattered in the room full of Akash’s family members. Indian women were beautiful, Indian men were beautiful and everything about them: the way they moved, the way they spoke, and the way they laughed was cause for reverence.

His vague feelings of guilt for not fully appreciating his parent’s cultural gifts were replaced by a new sense of obligation. An obligation to spread his self-understanding wherever he goes.

“It’s something I think of as a responsibility to myself and my family and my culture for that matter. And to even this country, I’d be doing the country a service,” Akash said.

Akash will remain an all-American. Detroit raised him and Charlottesville matured him. He’ll converse with his closest friends in English. He’ll watch the NBA. He’ll soon receive a diploma bearing the name of the first American colony. At every turning point, the part of him that resides in Shrivardhan will be in attendance, guiding him and reminding him.