The Board of Visitors’ full board meeting Friday served as a wide-ranging discussion of the direction Board members the University administration want to take the University, while touching on recent debates around the Honor system, Thomas Jefferson’s legacy and academic freedom.
Every Board member’s seat had a copy of the book “The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind” with the subtitle “Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University,” which Rector Whittington Clement addressed in his statement on the legacy of the University's founder.
Clement said Jefferson’s contributions are “an invaluable part of what it means to live, learn and work here” and will not change under the Board’s current leadership. He acknowledged Jefferson’s ownership of enslaved individuals, which he called “unacceptable by the standard of the day.”
Throughout the course of his life, Jefferson owned more than 600 enslaved individuals at his plantation home of Monticello and publicized views on Black inferiority. More than 4,000 enslaved individuals also built and were enslaved at the University.
“We shouldn't shy away from these truths,” Clement said. “Jefferson’s legacy is not so fragile that it can't withstand an honest reflection of the fullness of this life.”
He urged others to focus “at least as much” on the current challenges facing the University as on the history of the past.
Following Clement's remarks, Lily Roberts, student member of the Board and fourth-year Architecture student, addressed the group for the first time with an acknowledgement of the land of the Monacan people on which the University was built and the enslaved laborers who were integral in the founding of the University.
Roberts then addressed the recent hate crime at the Homer statue, which she said has left many students to “question their belonging at the University.” The University Police Department responded to reports of a noose hung around the neck of the statue early in the morning Sept. 7. Black students have since demanded increased transparency and information from the University pertaining to the investigation.
When a question was asked about police investigation updates into the act, Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis said this could be discussed in closed session.
In reference to free speech and academic freedom, Roberts said diversity of thought is not limited to political ideology, but also includes “individual experiences, family histories and academic interests.” She said that diversity, equity and inclusion policies have often been argued by conservative groups to stifle academic freedom.
“No two students are identical, even if they share a common ethnicity, race or physical similarity,” Roberts said. “Yet conversations that suggest the DEI initiatives come into conflict with ensuring we have diverse thoughts represented at U.Va. … Stifling diversity of thought is not, and never was, a goal of DEI work, nor is it an unintended consequence.”
One of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s newest appointments, College and Darden alumnus Bert Ellis, has openly critiqued the University’s approach to DEI efforts. Ellis has also drawn criticism from Student Council, University Democrats and Virginia Democrats for his role in bringing a eugenicist supporter to Grounds and for denying a co-sponsorship with the Gay Student Union in bringing a gay rights activists to the University.
The only time Ellis spoke during the meeting was to comment on the production of a teaser video shown to the Board highlighting the Living Honor Project — an initiative started by Alumni Association to facilitate conversations between students and alumni regarding Honor and its ideals.
"I'm concerned that the music and the overall theme is just too mellow,” Ellis said. "To really get to the students, I would recommend that as you add more videos, you add more punch to it.”
The Living Honor Project is an initiative proposed by University President Jim Ryan and Clement to aid students and alumni in learning about Honor and its role at the University following the historic vote to reduce the single sanction from expulsion to a two-semester leave of absence last spring. This was the largest change to the Honor system in its history.
In the video, students and alumni speak positively about the experience of living in a “community of trust,” after which Lily West, chief executive officer of the Alumni Association and president, and Susan Klobuchar, chief marketing officer of the Alumni Association, answered questions from the Board.
“The way we start, especially with such a vast population [that] has so many different types of people included in it, which is our greatest strength, is grounding us all in the values that we share,” West said in response to a question about balancing community input and Honor enforcement. “So starting with the spirit of Honor, starting with that community of trust, and getting buy-in into those discussions, because then we are able to engage meaningfully on that level.”
Education Prof. Patricia Jennings, the newly-elected chair of the Faculty Senate, listed salary equity, academic freedom, staff turnover, graduate student support and faculty parking, as being among the concerns of the faculty.
In the academic division, the staff turnover rate was about 15 percent, compared to 7.7 percent in Jan. 2017. At U.Va Health, the turnover is also double its historical average.
“I should say that this is a real challenge, but in some instances it can also be an opportunity,” Ryan said. “Insofar as we have open positions, it offers us the chance to think about and have conversations about roles and responsibilities—and so it actually gives us the opportunity to create some efficiencies.”
The gathering of all 17 voting members and two non-voting members in the Rotunda’s Board Room was the last meeting open to the public during the two-day session for the body. The next session will be Dec. 8 and 9.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the purpose of the Living Honor project as well as Susan Klobuchar's title — the current version has been updated to reflect these changes.