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Board of Visitors discusses Ellis messages, free speech and gun control

Board also congratulated student member Lily Roberts on her service

Members upheld free speech rights extending from the classroom to everywhere on-Grounds.
Members upheld free speech rights extending from the classroom to everywhere on-Grounds.

The Board of Visitors addressed controversial text messages leaked from Bert Ellis, newly appointed Board member and College and Darden alumnus, along with gun violence concerns and safety strategies in their full Board meeting Friday. Members also upheld free speech rights extending from the classroom to everywhere on-Grounds. 

The meeting began with mention of disparaging text messages obtained through a FOIA of Ellis. These documents reveal Ellis threatening to “raise hell with the BOV” and criticizing student members of Student Council and The Cavalier Daily, along with other organizations on Grounds.

Before reading the agenda, University Rector Whittington Clement condemned the messages, saying they contradict the Board’s professionalism and commitment to bettering the University.

“It's natural and expected that we have members of the Board that will want to disagree on issues — that's a healthy exercise to disagree on issues of importance,” Clement said. “But going forward, we should strive to do so openly and honestly, with the recognition that we're all here, really, for one reason — to serve the University that we love, and to help the University be successful.” 

Ellis’ appointment to the Board — confirmed Feb. 7 by the Virginia State Senate — followed months of controversy over his history at the University. Notably, Ellis traveled to the University in 2020 to confront a Lawn resident over a sign on her door and said he was prepared to use a “small razor-blade” to remove it. During his time at the University in the 1970s, Ellis invited prominent eugenics supporter William Shockley to a debate on Grounds and denied a request to co-sponsor an event with gay rights activist Frank Kameny. 

Ellis apologized “to all [his] colleagues” for the messages following Clement’s remarks, saying he has learned his lesson and never expected to be at the center of such a scandal.

“Those were private and confidential messages that were still out of place,” Ellis said. “I can't put the genie back in the bottle, so all I can say is I'm sorry.”

Ellis declined to apologize or comment on remarks made directly to students, per the Daily Progress. 

The Board then addressed gun violence in regards to last November’s shooting that claimed the lives of three University students  —- second-year student Devin Chandler, third-year student Lavel Davis Jr. and fourth-year student D'Sean Perry. The wider Charlottesville area has also seen a recent uptick in shootings, with five gun-related incidents reported so far this year. City Police Chief Michael Kochis held a community forum Monday night to address the recent increase in gun violence, featuring comments from local residents.

University President Jim Ryan said gun violence presents a pressing issue to community safety, especially with the majority of the undergraduate students living in non-University affiliated housing.

“We have 7,000 students who live on-Grounds, which means that the vast majority of them live off-Grounds, mostly in the areas surrounding Grounds,” Ryan said. “So it's critical that we're working with our partners in the city and in the county to do what we can to keep our students and our neighbors safe.”

Timothy Longo, chief of the University Police Department and vice president for safety and security, along with other University officials are meeting regularly with city and county executives to reduce gun violence and increase community safety. Longo said upon seeing the increase in violence, his team immediately reached out to local police chiefs for advice.

“Crime doesn't happen in a vacuum and certainly can't be solved in a vacuum,” Longo said. “To think we can do anything in this community without the collaboration and the help of our partners would be a serious mistake.”

Based on police chief recommendations, the University implemented Compstat, a performance management system used to reduce crime through data analysis. The program takes in real-time crime information to predict trends in when and where incidents will occur.

According to Longo, the University has made major changes to its threat response plans. Most importantly, any credible alert of a firearm on Grounds will now result in immediate police notification and the threat assessment team will begin vetting suspects in order to finalize next steps within 24 hours.

This policy references the tip that the threat assessment team received this September, alleging that the student accused of the November shooting possessed a gun in his dorm room. The team investigated the report but never confirmed the presence of the gun.

Following heightened gun violence, the University has also added more RMC Ambassadors — a safety team that patrols the Corner and other popular areas — especially along Grove Street, an area near the University hospital that has seen a recent increase in gun-related crimes. 

“We've asked our ambassadors to step up, and we've we're going to continue to reinforce that commitment for some period of time into the future,” Longo said. 

Board members also endorsed a statement on free expression proposed by Virginia’s Council of Presidents — a group of the presidents of all the public colleges and universities in Virginia. By endorsing the statement, the Board upholds the importance of First Amendment rights and inclusivity in the University setting, laying the groundwork for more more robust policies to come. Members of the Board emphasized students’ rights to express themselves and voice their opinions, arguing that the presence of different viewpoints and diverse thought processes creates a more complete University. 

Leslie Kendrick, director of the Center for the First amendment and law professor, said she hopes to further provide clear instructions for professors to create such environments. 

“I do think one benefit of [viewpoint diversity] is to reinforce to faculty and staff, but also to students, that encountering viewpoints different from their own, maybe practicing articulating arguments that are different from their own, respecting others, listening to others with viewpoints that are different from their own — that is a central part of their education,” Kendrick said. 

Finally, the Board recognized Lily Roberts, student member of the Board and fourth-year Architecture student, for her service. Roberts has provided the Board with student perspectives for the past year and will end her term this month.

The full Board will meet again in June for its summer session.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article attributed several quotes to Board member Thomas DePasquale which were actually made by Timothy Longo, chief of the University Police Department and vice president of safety and security. Additionally, the article stated that the Board has been meeting with city and county executives to reduce gun violence but rather Longo and University officials have been attending these meetings. The article has been updated to reflect both of these changes. 


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