A Letter to an Old Friend

by James C. Sherlock

This article is rendered as a letter responding to an old friend and mentor, the University of Virginia, my alma mater.

I can imagine the University’s response to my last article on its culture:

The changes we have experienced in the culture of the University, its pervasive progressivism, which some may see as toxic to a public university, are not unique to the University of Virginia, have been decades in the making and will be very difficult to change from within.

I note the pessimism, but do not share the conclusion. Change it must, and we must not shelter in place and hope it blows over.

I firmly believe that the University will not survive as a public institution, and will not deserve to survive, with a leadership structure monitored by a political Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) commissariat that tolerates no dissent from progressive orthodoxy.

I don’t believe it will survive hiring practices that render the faculty politically single-minded.

I don’t believe it will survive a student experience that has driven large majorities of students to respond to surveys that they feel afraid to engage in debate on topics related to progressive dogma.

How can we honestly say we promote diversity, but not diversity of thought?

As for President Ryan, I think he is changing and getting better at his job.

But you must, in turn, realize that I was raised in a naval culture that held the captain responsible for whatever proved the fate of his ship, even if he was asleep in his cabin when it went aground. Yes, ship captains must sleep. They are required to put a system in place and train their crews to operate safely without their presence on the bridge.

The concept of complete and indivisible authority and responsibility has worked out for the best in navies for millennia. Many corporate boards operate the same way in oversight of the CEOs that are their employees.

I understand the University has adopted a distributed management model. Each school Dean is responsible for his or her own ship. Culture. Hiring. Budget. Performance. Reputation. But the University has unitary oversight from a single board. And it must enforce unifying principles.

The University can be operated on the current management model as long as it is successful. Many do not consider what they see as a lack of intellectual diversity and suppression of dissent at the University to be artifacts of success. Perhaps the Board of Visitors needs to examine its own oversight structure in light of the current management scheme.

You have indicated that a large number of the students matriculating into the University want a woke culture. That they learned it in their public and private elementary and secondary schools. And UVa is responding to customer demand.

Adam Smith would have noted the adoption by the University of his invisible hand theory: that competition and the choices of buyers, not the government, control businesses. I agree with that philosophy in commerce, but the University of Virginia is not a private business.

It is a public institution currently configured to serve only progressive students.That cannot stand and ultimately will not.

Start with the understanding that most bullies are cowards. And consider that the staff of the University may have more than its share of bullies. Indeed, the DEI staff virtually has bullying in their job descriptions. Put a stop to it.

As for the students, I recognize the tradition of student self-government at the University. They can self-govern up to the point that they make unwelcome at the University other students who simply hold views different than the majority. Then they have crossed a line, have proven that they cannot handle unfettered self-government, and need to be given binding direction to repair their approach.

If a University cannot teach them that, what use is it?

Given the authority, I would invite every member of the UVa administration and faculty to consider their place in a public university. I would give them a week.

Then I would ask them to certify as part of their employment contracts that they will expend every effort to make both progressive students and faculty and those of traditional personal beliefs welcome at the university. Not only their persons, but also their opinions and open minds.

It is a pledge that only persons themselves unwelcome at a public University would fail to sign.

Those who would not sign, I would dismiss for cause. If that proved to be a significant number of people, so be it. In a remark often attributed to Charles De Gaulle, “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.”

Then I would put the same commitment into a student contract with the University.

Some will consider me intemperate or not wise in the ways of universities in these remarks or both. I do not.

As I wrote, I fear for the very existence of the University as a public institution in a state as politically divided as this one. The revolt of the public school parents that elected Glenn Youngkin will not stop at high school. It is coming to Charlottesville.

Soon some Governor, perhaps the current one, will take the path I described above. He would get 80% public approval for requiring public university employees and students to sign binding agreements to treat students and staff of differing views fairly, equally and with respect. Maybe higher than 80%.

I hope that legislators and the Governor will propose that concept as a law in the Commonwealth that governs state universities, and includes prescriptions for due process for accused offenders.  It can mirror in the school administration the process used for over 200 years by the University’s student-run Honor Committee.

Who in the General Assembly would vote against a law requiring state employees and students at state universities to treat other staff and students equally and with respect?  We should find out.

Three of our children and I are graduates of UVa. We love the University.

It makes me very sad to have felt the obligation to write this letter. But not for writing it.

Warm Regards.

Updated June 5 at 10:20