A Playpen for Social-Justice Activists

by James A. Bacon

Jim Ryan’s vision for the University of Virginia is to build an institution that is both “great and good,” an institution that strives for excellence while also advancing the common welfare. There are many paths to achieving the common good — entrepreneurship, economic development, effective government, strong families, vibrant civic life, for instance — but UVA’s president has settled on something else. He defines a good community as one that strives for social justice.

In 2020 the UVA Board of Visitors adopted most of the recommendations of the Ryan-appointed Racial Equity Task Force, which called for spending $700 million to $950 million to rectify the University’s historical racial injustices. The University has since ramped up its Diversity, Equity & Inclusion bureaucracy and poured millions of dollars into the hiring of far-left faculty who embrace Critical Theory and the intersection-oppression paradigm.

But Ryan has greater aspirations for UVA than merely to be an incubator of social-justice theory. He wants to export that thought into the world at large, starting with UVA’s home communities of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. To advance that aim, he created the Equity Center.

What does the Equity Center do? A core goal, in its own words, is to bring about “racial and socioeconomic equality.” A review of the Center’s website suggests that its 19 employees (one position is vacant at the moment) engage in a lot partnering, collaborating, coordinating, liaising, and awareness creation. But what have they actually accomplished? Has the Center done anything tangible to close the racial equity gap or is it just a playpen for social activists and community organizers?

What the Equity Center does. At the five-year mark, the Equity Center has had time to mature as an organization and refine its mission. The Center organizes its work around three priorities: youth power, community-engaged scholarship, and “knitting resources.”

Youth power is the easiest for outsiders to grasp: helping promising K-12 students gain access to resources that will improve academic outcomes. One program, Starr Hill Pathways, provides tutoring, career guidance, a summer STEM camp, and other assistance to “black, indigenous, ethnic minority, and under-represented youth.”

(The 2,100 Black students in the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County identified as economically “disadvantaged” compares to 1,900 White students. Little in the rhetoric of the Equity Center acknowledges the needs of under-privileged White youth.)

The Center also performs “community-engaged scholarship” and “data-rich advocacy,” which involves “reimagining” research with a focus on “serving societal goals of social justice.” The main work product is a Charlottesville Regional Equity Atlas, which is designed to inform “collective action for change.” Related initiatives track Standards of Learning test outcomes, maintain a statewide catalog of landlords who file for evictions, and publish indicators of community well-being and “climate equity.”

Thirdly, the Center undertakes what it calls “resource knitting,” which amounts to creating partnerships with Charlottesville-area nonprofits. “We find and nurture connections between and amongst partners in the local community, across the Commonwealth, and at UVA,” states the Center website.

All told, the Equity Center lists 47 University organizations and community groups as partners. These range from the (UVA) President’s Council on UVA-Community Partnerships to the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center, which generated notoriety for melting down the Robert E. Lee statue, and Prolyfyk, a running club that aims to combat “systems rooted in racism and white supremacy that oppress black and brown communities.”

What has the Equity Center accomplished? Based on a reading of its website, it is difficult to see what, if anything, the Equity Center has done to improve anyone’s life. The Center website provides no metrics by which to gauge progress toward its goals.

The most tangible of its activities is Starr Hill Pathways, which helps under-privileged kids achieve academically — a worthy goal in anybody’s book. But data is lacking. How many students have enrolled in Center programs? How many attended STEM summer camp? What success have the students achieved — how have SOL scores improved, how many graduate from high school, how many enroll in college, how many win scholarships, and have they fared any better than students who did not engage in its activities? The website has none of that. There is no way to evaluate the effectiveness of the program.

The data-advocacy component has produced some deliverables — the Regional Equity Atlas, the evictors catalog, SOL scores and the like. Some of this data is repackaged from existing state and nonprofit websites, so the value-add is marginal.

One original contribution is the evictors database culled from general district court data. The tool “functions as an aid to organizers, policy makers, policy advocates, and service providers by providing insight into who is responsible for the highest number of court-based evictions and eviction filings.”

Another research project compiling potentially useful data focused on racial disparities in the incidence of Charlottesville police “stop and frisk” activity. The data is current only to 2017. That’s of little value in evaluating law-enforcement policy today, but the project did at least add to the store of knowledge on a timely topic.

What goes unanswered is whether the data leads to useful public policy outcomes. Does targeting landlords who evict non-paying tenants do anything to increase the supply of affordable housing? Is ending stop and frisk compatible with reducing the incidence of crime?

Of all Equity Center priorities, “resource knitting” is the most difficult to evaluate. What is gained from these partnerships? Does the Equity Center facilitate conversations that would not have occurred otherwise? Does it use its relationships to guide data-research efforts? Does the networking serve any identifiable purpose beyond organizing community organizers and creating venues where activists can engage in activism?

Missing from the website is any sense of tangible accomplishment. The Center frets about poor peoples’ access to housing, but it doesn’t finance or build affordable dwellings. The Center worries about renters getting evicted, but it doesn’t address the reasons why renters get evicted. The Center decries the racism of urban heat islands, but it doesn’t plant trees. The Center highlights wage disparities but it doesn’t work to bring jobs to Charlottesville.

Rather, the Center “partners” with the people who do real things for real people.

Until evidence of tangible, measurable benefits can be produced, it appears that the Equity Center functions to provide sinecures for social-justice advocates with advanced university degrees and to propagate left-wing ideology in Virginia. Perhaps the UVA Board of Visitors should take a closer look. As the cost of attending UVA continues to rise, is this how the University should be investing its resources?

James A. Bacon is contributing editor for the Jefferson Council. The views expressed here are his own.

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27 responses to “A Playpen for Social-Justice Activists”

  1. The main mistake you're making is looking for tangible results from this place….. not its goal… it's giving jobs and money to people who have no real skills and can't be held accountable for not achieving goals,….as they don't exist.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      People who didn’t earn it? What people? Any particular distinguishing characteristics?

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      People who didn’t earn it? What people? Any particular distinguishing characteristics?

      1. Lefty665 Avatar

        Employment at the Equity Center appears to be one particular distinguishing characteristic.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Tall white guys with hair that grays nicely?

          1. Lefty665 Avatar

            I think the rules are only if they have appropriately useless academic credentials. Even then it falls under the "white privilege" exception and requires their pronouns to have qualifying intersectionality scores.

  2. Virginia Gentleman Avatar
    Virginia Gentleman

    Post number 125,849 on UVA's DEI status on BR.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Feel free to submit Virginia-based posts which you write to Jim Bacon. You can submit 125,850 posts where none concern UVa's DEI status.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    Jim Ryan is embarrassed. He suffers from lib-envy. Charlottesville isn't Austin or Madison … yet.

  4. Randy Huffman Avatar
    Randy Huffman

    Question, is the equity center counted in the DEI spending by UVA, either by Open the Books, or UVA's own count? I re-read the article last May and did not see it addressed, though did not dig through comments.


  5. StarboardLift Avatar

    I've just spent 5 days with 2 Minneapolis women in their early 30s who have left me with the impression that as long as it feels/sounds good and checks a box toward acknowledging someone's struggle, these efforts are above reproach, may not be critiqued. How can the next UVA president advocate closing something called "The Equity Center?"

    1. WayneS Avatar

      They'd sooner close the Equine Center…

      1. Rob Austin Avatar
        Rob Austin

        Or burn the Rotunda. Again.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: "In 2020 the UVA Board of Visitors adopted most of the recommendations of the Ryan-appointed Racial Equity Task Force, which called for spending $700 million to $950 million to rectify the University’s historical racial injustices."

    So maybe a starting question is: is it a fact that UVA engaged in racial injustices?

    If true, what should be done (or not) about it?

    where do folks start to disagree? at the racial injustices or what to do about it?

    1. Wahoo'74 Avatar

      The point is racial injustices no longer exist. UVA is allocating tens of millions of dollars to "rectify" problems that existed in EVERY college pre-Jim Crow. Ivies assuredly had racial and religious quotas (e.g., the infamous Yale Jewish quotas) but you don't see them allocating almost $1B to solve a problem that has been solved.

      This is an absurd Progressive "solution" (sic) to a problem that has been eradicated.

      Meanwhile, the Students for Justice in Palestine student group's empirically proven anti-Semitism goes unaddressed by the Ryan administration, hence the Matan Goldstein lawsuit. We are headed toward yet another trial or out-of-court settlement for Matan, following the $9 million UVA football player suit and Morgan Bettinger's undisclosed settlement amount.

      How many more administration screw-ups will the BOV tolerate? If UVA were a private sector company, the CEO would have been removed already.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Are you so sure? Do we still see actions that appear to be racial? Do the effects of racial injustice persist ?

  7. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    Well…I hate to disagree with Jim Bacon, but The Equity Center has produced something.
    Here you can see all of the publications bragging about what they "do."
    As Jim noted, there is an awful lot of collaboration…
    I think the main point is to make all of the people in Charlottesville, Albemarle, Central Virginia and the Commonwealth into woke activists just as unhappy and grievance filled as the leaders of these initiatives at UVA are. My favorite might be in Spring 2023 about the Local Government Equity Clinic, which appears to have been exported to at least 26 local governments in Virginia. So if you live in one of those dots on the map shown and believe your government services are not being delivered as well as they used to be, you can thank UVA for the "help."

  8. DJRippert Avatar

    "In 2020 the UVA Board of Visitors adopted most of the recommendations of the Ryan-appointed Racial Equity Task Force, which called for spending $700 million to $950 million to rectify the University’s historical racial injustices."

    If the total is spent over 5 years ….

    $700M / 5 years / 17,496 undergraduate students = $8,001.83 per undergraduate student per year

    $950M / 5 years / 17,496 undergraduate students = $10,859.63 per undergraduate student per year

    1. WayneS Avatar

      And what do they have to show for it?

  9. DJRippert Avatar

    On the one hand, making public data more accessible to the general public / taxpayers / voters is a noble undertaking. Given properly curated and maintained data, advances in Generative AI will make access to (and analysis of) that data much easier for the average citizen. While many "average citizens" may not care about the data, enough "average" citizens will care to expose some of realities of modern society and government using that data. Given the dearth of local news reporting I could see a time when Medium or Substack newsletters using accessible public data could partially alleviate the loss of local reporting.

    On the other hand, why "the Equity Center"? Why not fund "the Public Data Center"? One supposes that the powers that be don't want illumination unless the results of the illumination support their narrative.

    In the end, Jim asks the crucial question, "As the cost of attending UVA continues to rise, is this how the University should be investing its resources?"

    Hopefully the new, Youngkin-majority-appointed Board of Visitors will ask that question. However, I suspect they will not. Political wannabe hacks are political wannabe hacks regardless of who appoints them.

    1. Wahoo'74 Avatar

      I think the new BOV will slash expenses………fingers crossed!

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      how much of the salaries at UVA are paid for by state funds?

  10. Wahoo'74 Avatar

    The most fundamental question to ask is why are parents’ tuition dollars funding community social justice programs that have absolutely nothing to do with academic courses educating their children?

    What if the Charlottesville American Legion asked for money to pay for reunions for veterans who’ve defended our freedoms? Would the Equity Center deem that appropriate? Or help build shelters for homeless veterans? Or conduct civics classes for K-12 students, teaching them about our Founding Fathers’ courage and political philosophy since our schools no longer teach this?

    I think we know the answer. The American Legion would get a resounding no from the Equity Center.

    None of the above, including the hypothetical American Legion projects, should be funded, since those projects divert funds from academics.

    Eliminate the Equity Center and other superfluous programs. Apply all the administrative expense savings directly to tuition reduction. This is long overdue for middle-class parents who aren’t eligible for financial aid and can't afford UVA, the most expensive state university in America.

    The "cost of attendance" for a 3rd and 4th year out-of-state UVA undergraduate student is now $83,658/yr., more than Harvard. You don't need the Equity Center to tell non-VA parents that this is unaffordable.
    https://sfs.virginia.edu/financial-aid-new-applicants/financial-aid-basics/estimated-undergraduate-cost-attendance-2024-2025 .

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Sounds like UVA prioritizes Va kids first.

      1. Wahoo'74 Avatar

        UVA also has the highest in-state tuition charges of any top 50 state university. UVA's 33% out-of-state student population has been a historically significant competitive edge vis-a-vis other top-ranked state universities.

        Read this article: https://thejeffersoncouncil.com/the-jefferson-council-president-massive-expense-reductions-must-be-priority-for-new-bov/ .

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Are you talking about in-state tuition or everything, room & board, etc?

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