Sewanee Leader Resigns After 18 Months

Reuben E. Bigerty II, in a video after he was selected to lead Sewanee in 2020

By Kirk Petersen

The head of the only American university governed by the Episcopal Church announced he is resigning after 18 months on the job because President Biden might name him ambassador to South Africa.

“Having concluded that I would accept this nomination if it were offered and that it would be unfair to prolong any uncertainty at the University, I have informed the Board of Regents of this decision and tendered my resignation as vice-chancellor effective at the conclusion of this semester, on Dec. 21,” said Reuben E. Brigety II, in a December 1 letter on the website of Sewanee: The University of the South.

SABC News, a South African broadcaster, reported November 17 that “the United States has put forward Dr. Reuben E. Brigety II as its next Ambassador to South Africa and is awaiting Pretoria’s input.”  But White House Deputy Press Secretary Chris Meagher told TLC by email: “No nomination has been made for this position yet.”

Through a spokesperson, Brigety declined to comment beyond the announcement. An ambassadorship would need to be confirmed by the United States Senate. It is not clear why Brigety would resign before being nominated, let alone confirmed. “Out of deference to the president’s decision-making process, I do not intend to speak further about these matters,” said Brigety, 48, who previously served as ambassador to the African Union and as deputy assistant secretary of the State Department in the Obama administration.

Brigety also holds the title of president, and is the first Black person to lead Sewanee, which is home to one of the 10 official seminaries of the Episcopal Church. His hiring in 2020 was widely seen as part of the university’s multi-year effort to turn the page on its explicitly racist history.

Sewanee was founded in 1857 by three Episcopal bishops, all of them slaveholders, one of whom became a lieutenant general in the Confederate army, according to the university’s Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation at the University of the South.

“The University was the only institution of higher education designed from the start to represent, protect, and promote the South’s civilization of bondage; and launched expressly for the slaveholding society of the South,” according to the website of the project, a six-year effort of Sewanee faculty, staff, and students begun in 2017. The Roberson Project has sponsored a series of campus events this fall on reparations for slavery and other racial issues.

Brigety said in March that about 3 percent of the student body is Black. This compares to Black representation of 12 to 13 percent nationally among undergraduates, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute.

The university is located on 13,000 wooded acres in Sewanee, Tennessee. In addition to 75 students at the seminary, Sewanee has 1,600 undergraduate students studying a broad range of disciplines. It is owned by 28 Southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church.

The Rt. Rev. Rob Skirving, Bishop of East Carolina, is chancellor of the university and head of its board of trustees. “Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety has made a decision that saddens us even as it only increases our respect for him,” Skirving said in a letter written jointly with Reid Funston, chair of the board of regents. “We are grateful to him and hope that he is nominated and, if so, that his confirmation is successful.”

Sewanee has been rocked by racial incidents this year, most dramatically by reports in March that unidentified students shouted racial epithets at members of a visiting lacrosse team. The university announced in June that it had concluded its investigation into the incident, and had not been able to identify the perpetrators.

Early this year, Brigety disclosed that the campus home where he lives with his wife and two teenage sons had been repeatedly vandalized since he joined the university.

An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to Sewanee as “America’s only Episcopal university.” Sewanee describes itself on its website as “the only University founded and governed by dioceses of the Episcopal Church,” but several other colleges and universities retain Episcopal affiliations. 

 

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