Dear Rhodes Community,
I join with our nation in mourning the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Last evening, I spoke at a community memorial event in her honor. You can see my comments here.
One of the other speakers, Rhodes alumna and president of the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association, Shayla White Purifoy ‘03, focused her remarks on Justice Ginsburg’s reputation for collegiality and her close friendship with Justice Scalia—a friendship that flourished despite their differing perspectives and political affiliations. I found these remarks particularly poignant given the debates many of you are having with each other over the news that Rhodes alumna Judge Amy Coney Barrett ‘94 is a possible, perhaps even likely, Supreme Court nominee.
It is remarkable that a Rhodes graduate should appear at the top of a list of potential Supreme Court nominees, but it is in keeping with a long history of Rhodes connections to the highest court in the land. Alumnus Abe Fortas ’30 became a Supreme Court justice. Rhodes graduates have clerked for Justices and serve as federal judges. Rhodes has hosted both Justice Stephen Breyer and the late Justice Antonin Scalia on our campus. Our mock trial team is among the very best—in many years, the best—in the country. Judge Coney Barrett participates in this tradition of academic excellence. As a member of the Rhodes College Class of 1994, she graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor of Arts in English. While at Rhodes, she was elected to the Honor Council and to the Student Hall of Fame. She has gone on to a career of professional distinction and achievement.
Many students and alumni have written to me over the past few days. The intensely politicized nature of this moment and this nomination, and the very high stakes, mean that the letters are passionately felt and widely divergent in perspective. As I read them, I am deeply aware of the ways a Rhodes education shapes our students. No matter the political alignment of the writer, the letters I am receiving are almost all thoughtful, articulate, and grounded in values beyond mere political advantage. They speak of the strength of a Rhodes education, concern about how Rhodes should respond, and both hope and fear for our country and its future.
The diversity of views you present is to be expected and even welcomed. At Rhodes, we value critical thought, reasoned debate, the development of personal values, and the ability to engage across differences. Rhodes produces graduates in many fields who fall across a wide range of the political spectrum. Our Rhodes relationships offer the increasingly rare opportunity to engage with and learn from differing points of view.
The Rhodes connection to the Supreme Court is a source of institutional pride. It comes with a consequent responsibility to rise to the great challenges of our time with courage and integrity. My prayer and hope is that each of us will be moved to speak, act, and vote in accord with conscience, wisdom, and a passion for justice. Your Rhodes education has prepared you for this.