Guardrails and Pathways

Adam Lawrence Dyer
5 min readMay 8, 2024

Through my professional life, I have had the opportunity to receive a deep education in how policy is created, advocated for and implemented. Having witnessed policy being made from the ground up about everything from statewide penal codes to youth engagement to corporate giving, what has become clear to me is how “good” policy is less of a guardrail and more of a pathway. Guardrails are barriers. They are intentionally impenetrable because they are intended to keep people from danger. Guardrails come from fear. Pathways, on the other hand, lead toward futures.

What is also fascinating about the difference between policy as guardrail and policy as pathway is that because the guardrail is based on the fear of transgression, it operates entirely based on constraint. In contrast, the policy as pathway operates as opportunity, connection, and possibility. Guardrail is closure, pathway is opening.

I wonder if UVA in its response to the May 4 assault on Pro-Peace/ Pro-Palestinian protesters on campus was too concerned about guardrails and closures to recognize pathways and openings that were possible?

I wanted to begin with a question about policy because listening to the UVA Virtual Town Hall from Tuesday, May 7 that was hosted by President Ryan, Chief of University Police, Tim Longo and other administrators, policy seemed first and foremost in their minds. And for them, it is clear that they are concerned with policy as guardrail. This is evident in that they seem to feel fully justified in supporting policy that includes the use of vastly overpowering violent force on students and community members. Karina Ellwood and Olivia Diaz provide a useful framing of the administration’s explanation ( and the vastly different reality) in their article for the Washington Post, “U-Va. president, other leaders defend steps that led to arrests at protest (May 7, 2024). One must ask, why is this kind of violence even an option? Policy at guardrail. It seems clear from Tim Longo’s own words that a guardrail based on fear and transgression was at the forefront of the decision making:

“When UPD officers returned, a series of announcements using amplified sound were made asking the group to disperse. This announcement came from a uniformed police captain. Our intention was to issue a no trespass order and if met with non-compliance, to affect a custodial arrest for trespass. When the arrest team went in, numerous people locked their arms and refused to separate and disperse. Officers engaged one of the people closest to them when they entered, and they asked that person to leave the property. Upon their refusal, that person was taken into custody and removed from the group. The officers initiated a second reentry and there were four of them (officers). Officers were met with the use of umbrellas in an aggressive manner, at least one person swung their hands in the direction of officers and one officer was actually struck. The operations commander, a Captain at the scene determined that because our officers were in a standard uniform and absent any protective gear the risk of injury was likely to the officers and others present (?). My fear was that if active resistance would continue to escalate that it would be met with reasonable force to overcome that resistance. And the potential for escalating force was possible and likely. In consultation with members of the command post, President Ryan was there, Provost Balcom was there, Vice President Davis was there and many law enforcement partners, we requested that the Virginia State Police activate a tactical field force to do a controlled operation for the purpose of clearing the compound. It took quite a bit of time for the tactical field force to mobilize and to respond and by the time that they did, hundreds had come to the area surrounding it. Once the tactical field force was in place, an unlawful assembly was declared and a no trespass directive was given. The declaration and orders were given some seven separate and distinct times before the tactical field force ever engaged. Once the field force engaged using their shields to disperse the crowd, the encampment was cleared in about fifteen minutes.” — Tim Longo

One moment in Longo’s narrative seems to completely undercut the inevitability of the need for the “tactical force” that was deployed: “Officers engaged one of the people closest to them when they entered and they asked that person to leave the property. Upon their refusal, that person was taken into custody and removed from the group.” Obviously, it was possible to remove “non-compliant” people without pepper spray, and without a “tactical field force” and without presenting a posture of violence that harkens back to the days when national guard blocked black students from entering Little Rock High School in 1957. It also doesn’t help the justification for “tactical force” to see that the perceived threat came in part because “[ officers] were met with the use of umbrellas in an aggressive manner.” (Who knew that Mary Poppins was an action hero!) And truly, I don’t mean to make light of the real harm people experienced because of the officers perception of threat. The point is that this language of non-specific perceived potential threat is not unlike what has been heard in cases involving excessive police force around the country. What is more, for any student of civil rights in the United States, the language and logic holds too much in common with the justifications offered by people who were acquitted for lynching in an earlier time. This is not a comparison I make lightly. Rather it reflects the gravity around how the vast majority of people in this community would like to see serious solutions considered with serious and transformative approaches to problem solving.

One of the solutions that the UVA Administration must consider in order to regain the trust that President Ryan acknowledges is broken, but also to ensure the future safety of students and to warm the frost that has now paralyzed free speech at UVA, is to overhaul any policy that includes the aggressive intervention of a “tactical field force” to be deployed on students. No parent should feel comfortable sending their child to a school where this is a choice that leadership even has the option to make. There are alternatives. But to come up with those alternatives, UVA Administration must be willing to re-evaluate in cooperation with more than the usual suspects who are driven by political agendas, backward concepts of over-militarized policing and status quo.

Its up to you UVA, what environment of learning do you want to cultivate? One based on barriers or one based on possibilities? You can be sure that present and future students, parents, donors, faculty, and staff will likely make it loud and clear which one they would prefer.


Originally published at on May 8, 2024.