Just last week, Hamline University won a $30,000 grant to develop a center for racial healing.

For Fayneese Miller, Hamline's first black president, the timing couldn't be more poignant.

For some time, the St. Paul university has been trying to encourage communitywide discussions about race relations. That was before neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., burst into the headlines earlier this month.

Now Miller, who grew up "due south" of Charlottesville at the height of the Civil Rights era, says the need for dialogue is more urgent than ever.

"All of that stuff that has been hidden under a rock," she said. "It's in our face again."

At a time like this, Miller argues, colleges like Hamline have a vital role to play in bringing people together.

"To me, this is a pivotal moment for higher education," said Miller, who became president in 2015. "We cannot put our heads in the sand and ignore what's going on around us."

Hamline was one of 10 colleges — and the only one in Minnesota — chosen for the "Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation" grants by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The group awarded $30,000 apiece to create campus centers that will help "uproot the conscious and unconscious biases and misbeliefs that have exacerbated racial violence and tension in American society," according to the Aug. 16 announcement.

So far, there are no firm details about what Hamline's center will look like, says associate provost Jill Barclift, who is overseeing the project. Those conversations, she said, are just beginning.

But they're likely to be shaped by the recent violent images of white supremacists, protesting the removal of Confederate statues, clashing with counterprotesters in Charlottesville.

For Miller, the scenes brought back chilling memories. "It just breaks my heart what's going on," she said last week. "You're talking to someone from Danville, Virginia — the last capital of the Confederacy." As a child in the 1960s, she remembers the beatings of civil rights activists; segregated schools and libraries; police guarding the door as she approached her newly integrated high school.

In some ways, she says now, "we've had signs that this day was coming." She points to the tenor of the presidential campaign and escalating reports of hate crimes across the country. "I think we didn't realize how serious those signs were," she said. "Many of us turned a blind eye, and we can't do that anymore."

As she watched the images of Nazi sympathizers in Charlottesville this month, Miller, a social psychologist, was especially troubled by one thought: Why were there so many young people?

"The question becomes, where did we fail?" she said. "The older ones, yeah, they're going to hold on to those beliefs." But the younger ones? "We had hoped and believed that when young people of different racial groups came together, we would see more racial understanding," she said. "We obviously failed."

Still, Miller believes this is the time for educators to step up. "It is an opportunity," she said. "It's an opportunity for Hamline University to be actively engaged in trying to get to the heart of this."

Her goal, she said, is to start conversations about "what racial healing looks like" throughout Minnesota, not just the Twin Cities.

"We've got to somehow engage other communities," she said. "Otherwise, we'll have the same people at the table talking about the same thing."

She also plans to start these same conversations with students as they return to campus. "We want to make sure that our students leave here understanding and appreciating what it means to be part of a civil society," she said.

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384