Charles G. Lief was named the 7th president of Naropa University in 2012 after a deep forty-year affiliation with Naropa—first as a student of Naropa's founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, then as a lawyer for the university, and later as chairman of the board. Under President Lief's leadership, Naropa University has developed strategic partnerships to deepen Naropa's impact on its students and on the world. This includes revitalizing Naropa's commitment to the arts, investing in substantial capital improvements to Naropa's facilities, and substantially growing its undergraduate and graduate enrollment.

Prior to assuming his current role, Chuck led some of the country's most innovative and successful organizations providing integrated social enterprises and social services, including the Greyston Foundation and Amida Care, which together provided essential housing, health care, and employment to thousands of low-income people in the Northeast.

Chuck has served in leadership capacities on numerous boards, currently serves as the Chairman of the Board of the Lion’s Roar Foundation, and is a trustee at Bridge House and Veteran’s PATH. Chuck has previously served on the boards of Shambhala International, the Social Enterprise Alliance, the Intervale Center, the Vermont Community Loan Fund, Vermont Works for Women, the Westchester County Housing Commission, the New York State Governor's AIDS housing task force, and many others.

He earned a BA from Brandeis University and a JD from the University of Colorado School of Law.

Selected Writings & Addresses

For the past week the country has been overwhelmed with the impact of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers. Without doubt this heinous act of aggression, perpetrated by persons who are part of a visibly dominant social and political location against a man of color, has unleashed a tidal wave of reactions—fear, furor, depression, guilt, impatience and more.

But the fact is, what happened to George Floyd has happened, without gap or relief, for 400 years to people of color and Native Americans in this country. It would dishonor the life of George Floyd to fail to also note Ahmaud Arbery from Brunswick GA, Breonna Taylor and David McAtee both from Louisville KY, Tony McDade from Tallahassee FL, and countless others who met their deaths at the hands of the police.

The four Minneapolis police officers may be the current lightning rods attracting our outrage, but let’s not pretend there are not vast numbers of fellow members in police departments or other places of power across the country, both known and unknown, and both condemned and tolerated.

In some ways the murder of George Floyd feels like the universe is unfairly piling pain onto pain. How do we take it all in when we are mired in the challenges of the pandemic?  And yet this juxtaposition itself is a powerful education. While we cannot argue that the government response to the pandemic is subject to considerable criticism, we also can see that if motivated we as a society can act quickly and decisively if so moved—it took a matter of days to liberate $3 trillion as a means of softening the blow of the pandemic. No rational person can argue that as a society we aren’t suffering, either physically or economically, as a result of COVID-19, or that we are doing enough. But the speed and magnitude of our actions around the virus is unprecedented.  And yet, four centuries later, we still tolerate a social structure where we blame the victims of racism and cannot take the truly bold steps needed to affect lasting change. Nor can we humbly and intentionally admit to those who follow us that we still got it wrong.

To be sure, as a society we have made some measurable progress in dealing with systemic racism. However, Mr. Floyd’s murder is the latest wakeup call illuminating the danger of what Dr. King named the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

We should be grateful to everyone who is in the streets, raising their voices, honoring principles of nonviolent civil disobedience, and insisting on accountability and systemic change. But gratitude alone doesn’t cut it. It is not someone else’s job to do our personal work or give voice to what must be our personal demand for community transformation.

One problem with the notion that we are dealing with deeply embedded “institutional racism” is that such a view invites an “institutional” response. Such responses are so often overly conceptual, too polite and not radical in form or action; and they are based on the pretense that we have the luxury of time.

At Naropa, a predominately white university in a mainly white community, we face the need to look inward with the same impatience and honesty as many in our community are expressing elsewhere. I am heartened that many white members of our faculty have raised this existential issue and reaffirmed a commitment to do the work. As one professor put it: “I don't want to rely on others to educate me.  I do want to be a voice in the change process, as uncomfortable as that may be.  I wonder if we may all be allies for one another in finding ways to make change both within and outside of Naropa?”  To which a colleague replied, “I feel strongly that one of the primary ways Naropa can change the structures of oppression is by looking at how these structures manifest in our own institution. I have felt, and continue to strongly feel, that we cannot make a difference more broadly if we aren't willing to do that work ourselves.”

We cannot further traumatize our students, faculty and staff who come from marginalized locations, and who, even if unintentionally, are expected to bring their raw and deeply personal pain and feelings of anger and to “fit it in” to a classroom or other discussion where the majority of the participants come from a privileged background and who have very different lived experiences of oppression. What is worse is to expect those community members to bear the additional burden of having to teach the rest of us how to engage, how to take responsibility, and how to use our power to effect systemic change.

Good intention does not equate to a skillful ability on the part of any of us to lead or facilitate the work before us—neither the academic learning nor the mind-body practices needed at this time. Meaningful facilitation and teaching require a personal commitment to learn from others, to accept our own responsibility and to acknowledge and then suspend our own privilege. It also requires a community wide agreement that the work is required, not elective, and without such an agreement we cannot be fully educated or fully human.

I am very aware, as our founder often reminded us, that “words don’t cook rice." But the fact that our words are, by nature, incomplete, is not an excuse for silence. Neither can speech be a substitute for action.  I invite us to go deeper, to take more risk and to truly honor the founding vision that recognizes the inherent wisdom and goodness in each human being.

I will not presume to understand the complex ways in which each one of us is experiencing and processing what is before us. I encourage anyone in need of support to make use of available resources. For students, please remember that we are keeping the Student Counseling Center open all summer. For staff, you have access to support through our Employee Assistance Program or we can help connect you a Naropa-trained mental health counselor. Feel free to contact me directly for that. And less formally, I encourage anyone who would find it helpful to acknowledge the intensity of what we are dealing with and to schedule some time off for self-care.

Judy and I send you all our best wishes and heartfelt hope for your good health.

Chuck Lief