The debate over “contextualizing” the Thomas Jefferson statue at the University of Virginia itself needs some context. Viewed in isolation, the idea of adding a plaque to the Jefferson statue alluding to his flaws as a slaveholder as well as to his political and intellectual achievements should not be a cause of great consternation. Jefferson was not a saint. To my mind, acknowledging his human frailties makes his accomplishments all the more vivid.
But the Board of Visitors’ resolution earlier this month to contextualize the statue was not an isolated incident. The vote followed a long train of developments in which the university has sunk ever deeper into the quicksand of the left-wing interpretation of race, race relations, and the legitimacy of this country’s institutions. For many alumni, I suspect, the statue issue is simply the last straw.
After supinely tolerating the destructive, leftward drift in rhetoric and burgeoning signs of the cancel culture while dutifully handing over their money like good little alumni, many UVa grads have run out of patience. As Thomas M. Neale wrote in a letter to university authorities, “Enough is enough. Where does this end?”
The answer is that the leftward drift does not end until it meets resistance. For years, university leadership has responded mainly to internal constituencies, which are overwhelmingly left wing and steeped in social-justice ideology. The parents who pay the ever-escalating bills are not organized and have no power. Alumni are equally unorganized. Like a company union, UVa’s alumni association is a captive organization that functions as the administration’s alumni-propaganda arm. But the appearance of “Fuck UVA” signs on the Lawn and the decision to contextualize the statue — verbiage to be determined — were the sparks that lit the accumulated detritus that exploded into a forest fire.
It has been evident for some time that university leadership is interested in three things: (1) furthering its social-justice ideology, (2) pursuing institutional prestige in the eyes of other elite, left-leaning institutions, and (3) feathering its own nest. To advance these goals, the university has relentlessly increased tuition and fees, subject only to political pushback from the General Assembly, and has wined, dined, flattered and bamboozled wealthy alumni to bequeath as much of their fortunes as possible.
Bacon’s Rebellion has chronicled this cynical process for more than a decade now. Here are some recent headlines to blog posts we have written (in reverse chronological order), which give a flavor of what has been happening:
A Backlash at Last (about the “Fuck UVa” signs on the Lawn)
Look, Over There, a Squirrel (about changing the V-Sabre logo)
Our Little Five Billion (about UVa’s latest fund-raising campaign)
UVa as “Unfinished Project” (Jim Ryan’s inaugural address)
(Some of the extended comments on these posts are worth reading in their own right.)
Ryan took office about two years ago. The fixation on race precedes him by many years. The irony is, as much as successive administrations have apologized for the misdeeds of their predecessors and tried to rectify past injustices, there is no sign that race relations are improving. To the contrary, my sense is that African-Americans at UVa feel more victimized, aggrieved and dissatisfied than ever. Now we have reached the point where students (I don’t know if they are minority students are not) are posting “Fuck UVA” signs on their Lawn doors and decrying Thomas Jefferson, in the words of one young woman, as “a degenerate who owned and raped his slaves and then stole this property to build this institution for rich white people with slave labor.”
Of course, the social-justice wars really aren’t about improving race relations, they’re about fomenting discontent. The deeper purpose is to delegitimize the founding institutions of this country and create a revolution. University leaders like Jim Ryan are caught between the social-justice rhetoric they believe in and the very obvious fact that they are the stewards of a bloated, bureaucratic, and costly structure from which they personally benefit and which, through its excessive charges, aggravates the very inequality and social injustice they see in everyone but themselves.
The great challenge of blacklashing alumni is not simply to resist the excesses of the current administration, which risks positioning them as rich, fuddy-duddy reactionaries, but to articulate what kind of vision UVa should embrace in place of social-justice leftism. What does a forward-looking flagship state university look like? How should UVa balance the competing demands of inclusion, affordability, and academic excellence? Bacon’s Rebellion will explore those issues in the months to come.