In these grim times, we have every reason to conjure up ways to feel better about the world. So I asked myself, what could I do that would distract me from thinking obsessively about the variety of calamities unfolding in the nation?

Here’s what imagination delivered: to cheer myself up, I could go on a search for the most morally impressive young person at the University of Colorado. In truth, with the enormous talent pool in my vicinity, there are plenty of candidates who deserve this recognition.

But where would I begin my quest if I wanted a quick success?

Before 2020, I wouldn’t have thought to start at a CU fraternity.

But now I know.

Like many campuses nationwide, CU Boulder has been trying the experiment of bringing students to campus for in-person classes. For this experiment to work, restricting the spread of the coronavirus is essential.

This week started with a troubling message from Chancellor Phil DiStefano. CU is undergoing “a spike in COVID-19 cases,” he said, and everyone needs to pull together “to stop the recent rise in positive COVID-19 cases immediately.” Possibly making a contribution to this spike, several Boulder fraternities had held parties that defied public health orders, with large crowds, no masks, and little distancing.

When these fraternities were called out for their misbehavior, the most forceful reprimand came from 22-year-old Adam Wenzlaff, a business major with an emphasis on finance, a member of Sigma Nu, and the president of the Interfraternity Council.

Here are some statements Adam made in the letter he sent to the chapter presidents:

  • “I am disgusted with the lack of leadership that many of you have displayed.”
  • “The actions that have been displayed by a majority of our member chapters are completely indefensible.”
  • “The behavior of your fraternities over the last two weeks has been nothing short of outrageous.”
  • “You have failed your chapters and you have failed our community. WE MUST DO BETTER.”

I had the good fortune to get acquainted with Adam last winter. So when I learned of the stand he had taken, I instantly wrote a fan letter. When we talked on Zoom, reasons for admiration multiplied.

As those quotations from his letter surely demonstrate, Adam believes that “it is important to recognize actions that are not OK.” But he also believes that the people he reprimanded “did not want to hurt anyone.”

“You have to forgive people for failing to do their best,” he says, “just as you have to forgive yourself for your own shortcomings.”

In 2020, lots of people are driven to declare their dismay when they confront the bad conduct of others. Meanwhile, a smaller set of people feel compelled to offer compassion and understanding to the individuals whose behavior earned condemnation as “outrageous” and “completely indefensible.”

Adam Wenzlaff is one of the few people I know able to condemn and redeem simultaneously. Any day you’re not improving yourself,” he says, “is a day wasted.” Many other people voice high-minded principles. Adam lives them.
Adam is unusual, but he is not unique. He has a significant number of young counterparts whose gifts for leadership stand ready for unleashing and mobilizing on behalf of this troubled nation.

Let the unleashing and mobilizing begin.

Patty Limerick is chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.

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