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Honoring the Legacy of Robert Nusbaum

CSRF renamed The Robert Nusbaum Center at Virginia Wesleyan University

University News | April 27, 2020

The Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan University has grown in prominence and national stature since its inception in 1996. With that growth in mind, and in consultation with major contributors and family members of its late Founding Fellow Robert Nusbaum, the center has been renamed in his honor. The Robert Nusbaum Center will continue to expand its focus to encompass diversity, dialogue, faith and freedom.

Nusbaum, who passed away in 2018, was a prominent Hampton Roads civic leader, a former Virginia Wesleyan Trustee and Founding Fellow of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom. He was the driving force behind the creation of the center, first proposing the idea in a letter he wrote in November 1995:

"I venture to guess that more persons have been slaughtered in the name of religion than from any other cause...in this continuing saga of man's inhumanity to man, the one bright light that goes beyond mere tolerance is Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom. It laid the foundation for the First Amendment, and has served as a beacon for all enlightened constitutions ever since." 

Because of his vision and persistence, the center became a reality less than a year later in 1996.

"When Bob spoke of the Virginia Statute and the First Amendment, he highlighted how their legacy has resulted in diversity, dialogue, faith, and freedom in our nation," noted Craig Wansink, the Joan P. and Macon F. Brock, Jr. Director of the Robert Nusbaum Center. "At the same time, he recognized their fragility. If our nation doesn't see diversity and dialogue as important to its growth, it becomes something different than what the founders intended. It was his hope that students and citizens more deeply value those rights. I am grateful to be part of that mission for our commonwealth and country."

Bob Nusbaum and his brother, V.H. "Pooch" Nusbaum, later established the Justine L. Nusbaum Endowed Lectureship in honor of their mother, also well known for her lifelong volunteer service and dedication to humanitarian causes.

In 2016, Nusbaum created an endowment enabling the center to hold an annual student essay contest in which participants reflect on the importance of religious freedom either in this country or around the world. He shared his own worry that many young people do not understand the heritage of religious freedom as well as his wish that every VWU student would graduate with an understanding of the challenges and obstacles that humanity has overcome in attaining religious freedom, and to have an appreciation of the need to be ever vigilant to maintain those rights.

In recognition of his immeasurable service to the institution, Virginia Wesleyan awarded Nusbaum an honorary degree (Doctor of Laws) in 2003, and officially named him as the Founding Fellow of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom during the 2016 Justine L. Nusbaum Lecture. In 2013, he was the recipient of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities Humanitarian Award.

Nusbaum served on an astonishing range of civic organizations, nearly always in leadership roles, and often as president or chair. In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, he publicly fought against "massive resistance" to the integration of the Norfolk public schools. For the short term, he helped raise money to hire a lawyer for African-American school children and their families and organized business and community support for reopening the schools. For the long term, he founded a program called "The Aid Fund" which provided scholarships to African-American students struggling against racial discrimination in Virginia's colleges and universities.

In the 1980s, he responded creatively to the controversy surrounding the new in-vitro fertilization program at EVMS. He founded a group known as Virginians Organized for Informed Community Expression, or VOICE, to promote public education about this program. He also helped establish the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine Foundation and served for several years as chairman of its board.

These few examples of the unique characteristics Nusbaum exhibited illustrate the sensitivity of his interest in this important area. Virginia Wesleyan University is grateful for Robert Nusbaum's numerous contributions to the community and the University, which he served so faithfully, and proudly renames the center to reflect his vision and honor his legacy.

This month, Paul K. Chappell was to be the speaker for VWU’s annual Justine L. Nusbaum lecture. Due to the worldwide pandemic, COVID-19, this event has been rescheduled for Thursday, September 24, at 7 p.m. in the Susan S. Goode Fine and Performing Arts Center. Chappel will address the VWU audience on the topic, “The Art of Waging Peace: Why Peace Literacy Matters.”