Foundational Ideals
by Ron Londen
Illustrations by Israel Vargas and Willian Santiago
Within Communities and across the Globe, the Batten School is Harnessing the Power of UVA’s Guiding Principles
From left to right: Professor Brian Williams, Professor Christine Mahoney, Professor Gabrielle Adams
From left to right: Professor Brian Williams, Professor Christine Mahoney, Professor Gabrielle Adams

Batten professor Christine Mahoney was standing outside the room where she was scheduled to give a talk on the plight of refugees when the announcement was made. Across town in Charlottesville, the “Unite the Right” rally had degenerated into a riot. All public events at the University of Virginia were canceled. A local state of emergency had just been declared. 

Mahoney’s talk was one of 40 scheduled by UVA as a kind of counter-programming to the white supremacists who came to Charlottesville that day in August 2017. At the time, Mahoney was six months pregnant. Following the guidance of University leadership, she decided to avoid the violent protests and go home.

“I felt like I should be there,” she recalls. “I was doing what the University asked us to do as faculty, and doing what I should do as a pregnant woman, which was to be safe and avoid the riot. But I was also torn—I felt like I should be there, standing up for truth.” 

This impulse to stand up for truth is a defining characteristic of Batten and the University of Virginia. This year, through the Honor the Future campaign, the University celebrates truth as one of its foundational ideals, along with citizenship and the power of knowledge. Together, these three principles inform the work of students and faculty across the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. 

“Our community is driven by deeply held values,” says Ian Solomon, dean of the Batten School. “As people, we are unique and have diverse interests, but we are united in a profound curiosity and desire to question assumptions about the status quo and to have a positive impact.”

Driven to seek truth, members of the Batten community draw on the power of knowledge to envision a more enlightened form of citizenship. Three professors typify that process. Gabrielle Adams leads a social psychology research lab that focuses on interpersonal dynamics, decision making, and conflict resolution. Brian Williams researches the roles of police and community members on the “co-production” of public safety and public order. Christine Mahoney performs groundbreaking research that explores the experiences of refugees from conflict zones around the world. In an increasingly complex and contentious time, harnessing the University’s foundational values empowers these scholars to confront some of the most difficult issues we face today.

Seeking Truth - Foundational Ideal One

Yet the guiding sense of truth on which UVA was founded is about much more than an accumulation of facts. Rather, it wrestles with and seeks to reconcile the gaps between the way things are and the way they ought to be. After all, the University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson—a man who held slaves, but who also despised slavery and envisioned a nation guided by a “self-evident” truth: that all men are created equal. Reconciling that apparent contradiction and standing up for truth also means striving to make things better. 

According to Brian Williams, who studies police-community relations, that striving often begins with recognizing that one’s personal “truth” needs to be understood in context. African Americans in the South, for instance, often perceive interactions with police differently, given that the first police in the region belonged to patrols organized to catch runaway slaves. 

“You can’t understand the present unless you appreciate the past,” Williams says. “We have to be receptive, understanding that people have different perspectives based upon different cultural and personal lived experiences.”

In his qualitative research leading workshops with police and community groups, Williams starts by acknowledging that each person experiences life through a “prism” that shapes their perspective.

“I try to get people to appreciate those blind spots that we all have. No one can see perfectly; each person’s prism can enhance what they see, but it also distorts,” Williams says. “We all have different experiences, even though we might share the same space at the same time. People have to be willing to acknowledge that ‘I have a truth, but it may not be the truth’—that others also have a truth. Collectively, we get a sense of what’s really true.”

In other words, recognizing one’s own blind spots and distortions can lead to broader and more accurate mutual understandings, facilitating a union between the professional skills of police and the tacit knowledge of engaged communities. Such understandings—comprehensions of deeper truths—can help close the gap between “is” and “ought.”

They can also create ways to bring communities together. For one research project, Williams has been working with police officers in concert with a high school football team to examine specific problems in their shared community of Arlington, Texas. The process yields a deeper appreciation of each person’s role.

“It is really powerful for a bunch of 15- and 16-year-olds to take on a challenge and think it through,” he says. “These kids are an untapped resource. I see it as a great way to get them engaged in the process of trying to understand and address problems but also to help them take responsibility for trying to improve the communities in which they live.”

The Power of Knowledge - Foundational Ideal Two

The search for truth is powered by the creation of knowledge. It is through the rigor of collecting and analyzing data, and testing and refining our hypotheses, that the truth empowers our progress. 

“Imagine if each generation had to rediscover a polio vaccine or reinvent automobiles or airplanes,” says Dean Solomon. “Our ability to evolve as a species is enabled by our ability to develop knowledge, to share knowledge, and to build upon previous knowledge investments to contribute to future generations.” 

Williams’ research investigates how people perceive and address problems in their own communities—he takes the laboratory to the people, as it were. Gabrielle Adams, on the other hand, brings people to the laboratory. As a social psychologist, Adams leads the Applied Public Policy and Leadership Experiments (APPLE) lab, which designs experiments examining interpersonal dynamics. In the lab, she translates real-world dilemmas into research questions and carefully conducted behavioral studies. 

Much of Adams’ research focuses on ethical transgressions. “When we run lab experiments, we set up a conflict in the lab to both observe how people respond and look at their perceptions of wrongdoing,” she says. For example, one subject might be given a choice of tasks and choose an easy, pleasant assignment, leaving another subject with a boring, tedious one. The participants are then asked about their perspectives on the process. 

Another aspect of Adams’ research involves investigating wrongdoing from a different angle, by looking at public perceptions of the apologies that follow corporate transgressions. “At a critical time for a corporation’s public image, a CEO might be tempted to present a positive, upbeat affect, when the opposite is more effective,” Adams says. “We looked at CEO apologies and found that in those with sadness, CEOs were perceived to be more sincere.” 

Across the board, her research yields insights that construct a more complex and robust picture of the nature of human interactions. Adams refers to herself as an “experimentalist”; in all areas of her research, she is committed to the kind of rigorous, in-depth exploration that leads to the creation of new knowledge. “Time and again I am surprised by how strong the psychological roles are that we inhabit. It has guided my research over the years,” Adams says. “I’m interested in how the psychological roles that we occupy—whether gift giver or receiver or wrongdoer or victim— really shape the way that we see the world.” 

While Adams’ research looks at how public perceptions are vital to corporate leaders, her colleague Christine Mahoney’s research explores the role perceptions play at the opposite end of the business spectrum: refugees who are entrepreneurs. 

As director of Social Entrepreneurship @ UVA, an initiative led by the Batten School, Mahoney has long advocated for entrepreneurial effort as a means of positive change. Her research has taken her to areas of conflict across the world to explore the challenges facing people who are forcibly displaced. Many of these people must live for years in refugee camps. From Colombia to Thailand to Somalia and elsewhere, Mahoney discovered entrepreneurs everywhere she went. 

“In camp after camp, I saw refugees and internally displaced people who had lost family members and seen incredible horrors,” she says. “But it’s really amazing. Everywhere you look, they start businesses in these camps. You see little restaurants; you see hairdressing shops; you see barbershops and businesses selling school supplies.” 

Although creating businesses under such conditions is challenging, Mahoney notes that more than 40% of the founders of the Fortune 500 companies were immigrants, refugees, or their children. “Historically, refugees are one of the highest entrepreneurial categories,” she says. “Resilience is central to their experience. When you’ve nearly lost your life escaping a war, pitching in front of an investor isn’t the worst thing in the world.” 

Still, overall, refugees have a public perception problem. Mahoney saw this firsthand in the camps she visited: Often the small businesses that spring up must operate in the black market since host countries typically fear competition with local enterprises and bar refugees from starting businesses. 

Rather than viewing displaced people as a burden and a threat, Mahoney says, we should recognize them as an asset. Instead of forcing refugees into unending aid dependency through work restrictions, investments and market forces could be brought to bear in win-win relationships that benefit both refugee communities and host societies, Mahoney proposes in her 2016 book, Failure and Hope: Fighting for the Rights of the Forcibly Displaced

“We need to rethink how we address the global refugee crisis,” Mahoney says. “If you’re displaced today, you’ll be displaced for 17 years, on average. It’s not a temporary thing, but our response has been temporary food and temporary shelter, with the expectation that people are going to go home. But their home is often a failed state. People can’t go home.” 

When one public policy approach has held sway for decades without making progress, we can leverage the power of knowledge— facilitated by extensive research—to motivate change. 

“One of the things you have the luxury of doing as a professor is stepping back, thinking big and researching in a really broad way,” Mahoney says. “I researched every protracted displacement crisis in the world and then I did fieldwork in seven conflict zones. All of that showed that what we’ve been doing for the past 60 or 70 years is not working, and it’s not going to start working. We need to do something different.” 

Stepping Up In Citizenship - Foundational Ideal Three

In the past decade or so, “impact investing”—which involves harnessing private investment to create positive social outcomes—has emerged as a powerful alternative to philanthropy and government aid. 

In her book Failure and Hope, Mahoney proposes using impact investing as an incentive for host governments to allow refugees to work openly so that they can add their entrepreneurial energy to local economies. It’s a vision that has the power to transform how we see citizenship—and how we think about participating in a community of people with differing needs. 

The three years since her book was published have brought Mahoney to speaking engagements and policy conferences as well as meetings with UN policymakers, humanitarian groups, philanthropists, and investors. Thanks in part to her efforts and research, the idea of applying impact investing to the refugee crisis has gained significant momentum during that time. Mahoney notes that developing what she calls a “connective tissue” between private-sector investors, entrepreneurs, and local government officials has the potential to create an infrastructure that will empower economic growth in refugee communities. That process can be supported by a deeper understanding of both the challenges refugees face and the practical needs of investors. 

“Some people from the nonprofit side look at investors and say, ‘The need is so great; why don’t they just give money to the refugees?’” Mahoney says. “But investment funds have a fiduciary responsibility to invest for a return; they legally can’t just give it away. They could invest it if there’s the right deal. So if we set it up correctly, then we can unlock capital that otherwise we couldn’t unlock.” 

Mahoney’s years of research have led her to advocate for long-overdue change. “When you’ve worked on something like this for so long and you’ve seen the suffering on such a massive scale, it makes you passionate about pursuing solutions,” she says. “It has traditionally been a university’s role to engage in truth-finding and research and to share that knowledge through published findings. But I think our students and our faculty and our community want to see the University engaged.” 

Developing engaged citizen-leaders has been a central mission of the Batten School since its founding. “We’re not just trying to teach people how to lead,” says Gabrielle Adams, “but how to think about leadership. Thinking about leadership and thinking about citizenship go hand in hand. That informs both our research and our teaching.” 

For his current research project on police-community relations, Brian Williams chose the title “Getting to We,” a nod to the beginning of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We the People.” 

“Right now, we’re in a very polarized kind of moment in a lot of communities,” Williams says. “But we utilize that first word of the preamble to emphasize the need to get to that point where we can form a more perfect union.” 

Before joining the Batten School last fall, Williams, who had witnessed the violent August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville from afar, believed he could make a difference. 

Last fall he spearheaded a student assistance fund in memory of his parents, who were lifelong educators. The fund aims to encourage student-led engagement efforts within Batten and the surrounding Charlottesville community. 

“I thought [the fund] would be a good way to encourage and bring together people from across Grounds and the community to engage in just some basic stuff—‘How do we get to know each other and kind of humanize each other?’” he said. “How do we come to appreciate the different lived experiences that others have had that shaped their prism in how they view the world?” 

Although the need for “getting to we” may show no sign of abating as civil disturbances in college towns, tensions between police and community, and global humanitarian crises persist—professors like Williams remain resolute in their conviction that exposure and engagement can bridge the gap—getting closer to that we

Like Adams, Mahoney, and Williams, the Batten School is rising to the challenge of addressing that need, driven by enlightened citizen-scholars who are equipped with the power of knowledge—and ignited by the search for truth in its most fundamental and transformational forms.