OUTstanding Virginians 2014

Allen Groves – Dean, Charlottesville

Allen GrovesWhen you are a dean at one of the country’s oldest public universities and people are anxious about unwanted political influence, it helps to reaffirm your faith in the institution’s bedrock values.

That is what Allen Groves, Associate Vice President and Dean of Students at the University of Virginia, did in 2009 at a public meeting to discuss the prospect of state-sanctioned discrimination against LGBT faculty and staff. Then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli had just released his infamous memo stating that job protection on the basis of sexual orientation did not exist in the state university system.

Many students looked to Dean Groves, U.Va.’s highest ranking openly gay administrator. He knew his comments would either inflame or quell the incipient fears.  Patiently, the dean explained that the memo made no difference at all. “Nothing anyone says will make UVA reject its core value of nondiscrimination,” he said. The meeting ended on a calm note, the university community stayed true to its shared values, and no wave of discrimination materialized.

When you’re a candidate for high office in your fraternity and you are being attacked for being gay, it helps to resist rising to the bait.

That is what Groves did in 2004, when he was standing for election as international president of Pi Kappa Alpha at the fraternity’s annual convention. “A very senior alumnus approached me the night before and told me to withdraw from consideration because of my sexual orientation,” recalls Groves. “‘Someone like you can’t be president,’ he said.” To make matters worse, the man insulted Groves’ partner of 14 years, Adam (now his husband).  Patiently, Groves explained that it was up to the students and alumni to decide if he was fit for the fraternity’s highest office.

Later, Groves was told that the incident had been discussed by the fraternity’s past presidents at breakfast the next morning. The oldest of them, a conservative, religious gentleman, asked how Groves had handled the situation. When Groves’ calm reaction was described, the old president said, “If that’s the case, I’m not concerned about him.” Groves won the office unopposed later that day. Two years later, at the end of his highly successful presidency, the alumnus who had challenged Groves’ fitness for the office apologized. Meanwhile, Groves went on to become Chairman of the North American Interfraternity Conference, the trade association for 75 university-based fraternities.

These two stories capture the imperturbable nature of Allen Groves. That nature has brought him acclaim in two careers, as well as in his fraternity service.  As a U.Va.-trained lawyer, he rose to partner at a large Atlanta firm. He is a member of the American Bar Association and a published author of articles in law journals.  In 2006, he left his law practice to return to UVA, and shortly thereafter took the Dean of Students position in Charlottesville.

On the Grounds, he is beloved by students gay and straight. As reported in the University’s alumni magazine, “Groves has become widely known for his accessibility and agility in bridging the generation gap. He publishes his cellphone number and responds to students’ text messages. He meets them for lunch, tennis or golf.” Or, as a gay student told the Washington Blade, “Our dean of students, Allen Groves, is the coolest guy around.”

For his part, Groves couldn’t be happier with the students. Within many fraternities, once bastions of homophobia, acceptance of an openly gay brother is steadily becoming a non-issue, he reports. Even many members of UVA’s College Republicans are not against same-sex marriage. To give a sense of the campus zeitgeist, Dean Groves tells the story of a recent tweet sent by a venerable Wahoo institution, the Virginia Gentlemen. This men’s vocal group is known for great a capella singing and a preppy look complete with khakis and blazers. In this year’s Valentine’s Day message, the ensemble offered “a big shout-out to all the VG girlfriends and boyfriends!”  “They’re treating all relationships equally,” the dean notes, delighted.  He sent a note to the VG’s, saying “Thanks for this tweet – it gives me great hope for the future.”