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U.Va. professor Jalane Schmidt reflects on scholarship, public engagement

After dismissal of a defamation lawsuit, Schmidt questions the relationship between professorship and community activism

Schmidt, currently an assoc. prof. of religious studies, is also a local Black Lives Matter activist.
Schmidt, currently an assoc. prof. of religious studies, is also a local Black Lives Matter activist.

A month after the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit brought against her in late May, Assoc. Prof. Jalane Schmidt has begun to question the relationship between public engagement and traditional scholarship at the University.

Schmidt, who doubles as a local activist, was sued alongside C-VILLE Weekly News Editor Lisa Provence and C-VILLE Holdings, LLC for her comments in a March 6 C-VILLE Weekly article titled, “The plaintiffs: Who’s who in the fight to keep Confederate monuments.” The article, written by Provence, profiles the 13 plaintiffs in the Monument Fund v. Charlottesville case.

The plaintiff, Edward Dickinson Tayloe II, alleged his profile conveyed defamatory implications. 

“There's just this catalogue of entanglements that this family has that has been harmful to black peoples’ lives, so I said this family's been roiling black peoples’ lives for centuries, and then given all this, this is what this plaintiff is pursuing,” Schmidt said.

The suit, filed in May, was dismissed by Judge Claude Worrell in Albemarle County Circuit Court Oct. 28, after Schmidt, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a demurrer July 22. 

Since then, Schmidt has stepped out to publicly discuss her involvement in the case, delivering a Nov. 21 talk on “the risks and rewards of public engagement” at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library. There, she traced her roots in academia to her current role as professor, community activist and public historian. 

“I wanted to narrate how does one get from doing my work in Cuba to facing off with Nazis and more,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt’s Background 

A tenured professor since 2015, Schmidt began teaching at the University after conducting field research in Cuba, where she found history woven into everyday culture — historical reenactments, music performances, festivals and other public events taught human culture through participation. 

“Learning was often conducted in the streets or in other open air spaces or public forums, and it engaged the body, mind and, yes, feelings,” Schmidt said. 

After living and studying in Cuba, Schmidt arrived on Grounds, teaching classes in the religious studies department before venturing into critical whiteness studies — a topic that pushed her to delve into the history of the Civil War Reconstruction and the Jim Crow South. Soon after, Schmidt became a regular attendee at the 2016 meetings of the City’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces — a task force dedicated to recommending future action for the statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. 

After the report’s Dec. 2016 release, City Council voted to relocate the Lee statue in Feb. 2017.

“It was by then that I started to feel like a scholar activist,” Schmidt said. “After months of the BRC meetings, I had so many more contacts in the community by then, and it seemed natural to join with these friends ... not only in City Council for that decisive vote, but then after that, in the parks and streets and Downtown Mall in the holding space when neo-Confederates and fascist groups began visiting Charlottesville in the early spring.”

Following the Council’s decision, Schmidt remained heavily involved in local anti-racist activism during what many call the Summer of Hate. In July of 2017, she publicized the $1,000 donation that the Ku Klux Klan gave to the University’s centennial fund in 1921.

“The Klan fund pledged to U.Va. was literally in a footnote in a book, but I amplified this footnote … in order to make a rhetorical political point,” Schmidt said. “Why is U.Va. discouraging its affiliates from counter protesting white supremacy when the very group which was terrorizing us in 2017 had enjoyed such a cozy relationship with U.Va. in the 1920s?”

Following the violent Unite the Right rally of August 2017, Schmidt has continued to interweave her scholarship and activism, leading walking tours of local Confederate monuments and attending hearings of the Monument Fund v. Charlottesville lawsuit.

The Lawsuit

During these proceedings, Schmidt noticed two members of the League of the South — a Southern white nationalist organization — who were also members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization of which many plaintiffs were members.

When Provence published these connections in C-VILLE Weekly, the pair were quickly hit with a defamation lawsuit from one of the Monument Fund plaintiffs, who sought nearly $2 million in damages — a suit Schmidt calls “a textbook case of white fragility.”

Months later, Schmidt sticks to her statements about the Tayloe family, which was one of the largest slave-holding families in the South. The plaintiff’s father, Edward Thornton Tayloe IV, was vice-chair of the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority during the 1960 decision to raze Vinegar Hill — a then-thriving African American community located on what is now the Downtown Mall.

The family also has ties to the University, as the Darden School of Business has an endowed chair and research center named for Virginia politician and banker William Tayloe Murphy, Sr., which were established through an anonymous $1 million donation. Tayloe Murphy was a member of the Gray Commission, which led the Massive Resistance effort against desegregation after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

Appointed by Virginia Governor Thomas B. Stanley in 1954, the Gray Commission released its final report Dec. 1955, which recommended that laws be amended so as to not require children to attend integrated schools, that state government provide tuition grants to children attending private, all-white schools to avoid integrated public schools and that school boards be permitted to assign white and black students to particular schools. 

Desegregation in Virginia public schools wouldn’t begin until 1959 — five years after Brown v. Board. 

“We know these things in the abstract, but it's when you start really of drilling down and looking at the specifics of it that's when it becomes really real,” Schmidt said. 

Professorship and public engagement

Though the case was dismissed, Schmidt remains critical of the University’s response to the suit. 

The Virginia Division of Risk Management — which manages the Commonwealth’s liability risk management plan — determined that Schmidt’s comments fell outside the scope of her employment as a faculty member, meaning that University counsel could not represent her. This decision came down June 3 — just four days after the plaintiff served Schmidt with his complaint.

In response to this decision, English prof. Herbert Tucker and Law prof. Anne Coughlin sent  letters to the University to voice their concerns. University President Jim Ryan and Provost Elizabeth Magill wrote back Sept. 17 to explain the DRM’s ruling. 

“In this case, it was our view the [sic] Professor Schmidt’s statements were within her employment as a professor,” the letter reads. “In discussions with DRM, we expressed the view that Professor Schmidt’s statements were consistent with her role as a professor and therefore within the scope of her employment.”

Although University policy states that “academic faculty have the free speech right to address in any forum any matter that is of social, political, economic, or other interest to the larger community,” the DRM ruled that the University could neither defend nor pay any judgement if one were to result from the suit. 

To regain representation, the University would have to request that the state Attorney General overturn the decision — however, the University didn’t do so, and Schmidt retained her counsel from the ACLU. 

In order to address the disparity between the DRM’s ruling and University policy, the Faculty Senate announced Oct. 2019 its intention to form an ad hoc committee to deal with scope of employment questions. The senate also stated its support for Schmidt, noting that faculty should expect representation from the University when engaging the public. 

“When faculty members like Dr. Schmidt use their scholarly expertise in the public arena, the University should provide administrative and legal support when needed,” the statement reads. “Because the University encourages its faculty to engage the public, it should be considered within their scope of employment, and faculty should, therefore, expect such assistance for performing their jobs if they face legal action.”

Although responsive to requests for comment in an Aug. article in The Cavalier Daily, the University never publicly released a statement in support of Schmidt. 

“It's just a question of what does it mean to do public work?” Schmidt said. “What is the job [professorship] supposed to be? Because apparently, there seems to be a discrepancy between what the University is encouraging us to do, and then what we will actually be supported in doing.”