On a cold, rainy December evening, it was a time for leadership, engagement, and thoughtful dialogue. The room was so crowded in the small Student Center ballroom that there was no room for tables and chairs.
Some 200 students, along with a clutch of supportive faculty and staff, sat cross-legged on the floor, leaned against walls or grabbed one of the few chairs available.
There was no class lecture; no cramming for a final; no required attendance at a campus event.
But of course not all learning at the University of Kentucky takes place in a classroom. And the teachers are not always who you would expect.
On this otherwise dreary night, students of all colors and a variety of backgrounds gathered for nearly two hours to discuss how to move forward in the wake of what has occurred in Ferguson, Missouri and on the same day as the grand jury announcement in New York City.
No matter your political perspective, or your reading of these events, there is no disagreement that events in Ferguson and New York are a tragedy -- for that community, for the families involved and for everyone who cares about that sometimes abstract and distant idea that we call our shared humanity.
Titled "Beyond Ferguson," the session -- organized by the MLK Center -- was focused on the question of how we move forward as a community toward a better place, a place of reconciliation.
"This is not just an issue for people of color," one participant said. "People of color are not the only ones impacted by racism. We all are."
And change -- whether in our community or more than 300 miles away in a place called Ferguson -- doesn't happen among one group or one color of people.
It happens in a community -- a community committed to discussing the toughest of topics and listening deeply to each other even when the answers aren't easy or trite.
Of course, they never are when the stakes are highest.
It was the second time in less than a week where our students led so powerfully. Last Tuesday, more than 100 of our students, again supported by several faculty and staff, marched peacefully and often silently to voice their concern over the events in Ferguson.
I am proud to be part of a university community that encourages our students to voice their opinions, whether in the cadence of a common voice supporting an idea or in the sorrowful lament of protest and hurt. That environment is what we cherish as Kentucky’s university. Whether on a march through our community's streets, or coming together for dialogue in a crowded ballroom, our students are giving voice to their concerns in ways that are at once both powerful and peaceful.
They are leading.
In doing so, they speak as members of a university community who understand the value of both unity and dissent — ideas that, in their best form, share as their common chorus the desire to seek truth.
Such truth is often elusive. Perhaps, ultimately, it even surpasses our understanding. But the journey in search of it is how we build a community -- one that can be sustained in good times and in bad, in triumph or in tragedy.
I am gratified to be at place where there is a willingness to take the journey.