Break out the Smelling Salts. Bert Ellis Called Someone a “Numnut”

Image credit: Washington Post

by James A. Bacon

And the hit jobs just keep on coming!

After maligning Virginia Military Institute alumni dissident Matt Daniel two days ago, The Washington Post aims its guns today on Bert Ellis, a conservative alumnus and member of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors, with the publication of text messages obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. They were private communications. Like everyone else in the universe, Ellis expressed himself with candid language he would not have used in the public domain.

Make sure you’re sitting down. You might want to take a dose of anti-anxiety pills. Ellis actually called people “numnuts.”

He also had the temerity to express dissatisfaction with the Ryan administration’s obsessive focus on race, including its Diversity, Equity & Inclusion initiatives.

In truth, there is remarkably little that is worthy of note in Ellis’ text messages. Yet the Post quotes Jeff Thomas, the leftist chronicler of Virginia politics who obtained the FOIA documents, as asserting that the documents “demonstrate Governor Youngkin’s Board appointees are ignorant reactionaries consumed by hatred and neo-Confederate fantasies.”

The text messages demonstrate no such thing. Ellis has never been consumed by the destruction of Civil War statues or the assault on Southern heritage. Rather, he has lamented the trashing of Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers. There is nothing in the text messages to suggest the existence of “neo-Confederate fantasies” — nor, for that matter, the notion that he is “consumed by hatred”… unless you consider calling someone a “numnut” an indicator of unquenchable animus.

Ironically, one might be justified in concluding from Thomas’ hyperbolic language that he is the one consumed by hate-driven fantasies.

What is astonishing is that the Post allows Thomas’ characterization to pass without comment. The article never acknowledges Thomas’ strong ideological biases, noting simply that he authored a critique of Virginia politics, The Virginia Way: Democracy and Power, and that he has specialized in analyzing the state’s political culture and is an advocate for institutional transparency.”

To be sure, Ellis has been the subject of far worse vilification. In the run-up to his state senate confirmation as a UVa Board member, The Cavalier Daily student newspaper, the UVa Student Council, and the Faculty Senate, tarred him as a racist and homophobe. His nomination by Governor Glenn Youngkin passed narrowly only because two senators broke ranks from their fellow Democrats by refusing to give credence to the slanders.

I talked to Bert this morning about the WaPo article, and he is undeterred. When he embarked upon his crusade to preserve Jeffersonian traditions, uphold free speech, and fight for intellectual diversity at UVa, he knew he would be targeted for personal destruction because that’s how the left and its media allies fight their battles today. Most people would quail in the face of character assassination, but Ellis takes the viciousness in stride. “We’re like Patton,” he said. “We go forward. We don’t retreat.”

Let us now examine how reporter Nick Anderson frames the article to put Ellis in a negative light.

 Anderson kicks off the story with an anecdote. 

After Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) named him last summer to the University of Virginia’s governing board, Bert Ellis had a platform to influence the school’s administration. He spotted a potential target, a vice provost named Louis P. Nelson, tasked with community engagement, public service and academic outreach programs.

Nelson, who reports to U-Va’s chief academic officer, Provost Ian Baucom, is also a professor of architectural history and an award-winning scholar and teacher. He has researched buildings and landscapes that shaped slavery in West Africa and the Americas, including at the prestigious public university that Thomas Jefferson founded in Charlottesville.

Ellis was unimpressed.

“Check out this numnut who works for Baucom and has nothing to do but highlight slavery at UVA,” Ellis wrote on July 22 in text messages to two other new board members, Stephen P. Long and Amanda Pillion. “This bloated bureaucracy has got to be slashed.”

Do you see what Anderson does here? He says “Ellis spotted a potential target.” He imputes a motive behind Ellis’ remark, implying that Ellis was looking for something with which to take issue. But this was a private communication with two fellow board members. Ellis never criticized Nelson publicly. How can it be said that Ellis “targeted” Nelson if he never made a public issue of him or the creation of his position? Anderson’s verbal formulation suggests a level of aggressiveness or animus that simply did not exist.

Anderson also fails to flesh out the context of the remark, which Ellis made abundantly clear: “This bloated bureaucracy has got to be slashed.”

As the Virginia Association of Scholars documented in a recent study (which the Post totally ignored) UVa has seen a spectacular growth in its Diversity, Equity & Inclusion bureaucracy. The VAS documented that in 2021 UVa employed 77 DEI staff positions costing $6.9 million a year in salaries, not including benefits, office expenses, or lost faculty productivity due to many hours of engaging in DEI activities. (Anderson could have provided this context had he chosen. The Jefferson Council highlighted the VAS study on its blog. Anderson did not hesitate to use the blog as a source for other material when it fit his narrative.)

The VAS study represented an incomplete accounting of the cost of DEI programs, however, and DEI employees represent only a fraction of UVa’s burgeoning administrative staff. Ellis is concerned that bureaucratic bloat is driving up the cost of attendance at UVa, putting a financial squeeze on all students. He has asked for data about administrative costs but UVa leadership has resisted supplying it.

The tension between Ellis and the Ryan administration is reflected in another context-free anecdote. Ellis asked Davis for data about the size and expense of administrative staff. “How hard it is to do a 20 year track on the growth of the administrative bureaucracy at UVA…. total expense and total headcount of all non-teaching employees at UVA.”

Without providing that background, Anderson wrote:

In another exchange, a senior U-Va. official admonished Ellis to respect university staff.

[Rector] Whitt [Clement] thinks your financial dept cannot walk and chew gum at the same time,” Ellis wrote on Aug. 12 to Jennifer “J.J.” Wagner Davis, the executive vice president and chief operating officer. “I bet you can pull these administrative expense numbers fairly easily. Look forward to talking about it.”

“First, we need to talk,” Davis replied. She said the university was juggling “loads” of requests. “I am deep[ly] respectful you are on the [Board of Visitors] and fun to be around, but please don’t disparage good people.”

“Not disparaging anyone…” Ellis wrote.

“Walk and chew gum is not nice,” Davis replied.

It could be said — hell, I’ll say it — that Davis was not being “nice” by refusing to supply a legitimate request for information from one of UVa’s board members. When she said her office is “juggling loads of requests,” she signaled that Ellis’s request was a low priority… or perhaps that she didn’t want to provide the data at all.

The latter explanation seems the most likely to me. Either Davis knows how much administrative costs have grown over the past few years and refuses to divulge it because it would be an embarrassment, or she doesn’t know… which would represent an unforgivable management failure.

There is more to be dissected in the WaPo article, but such an exercise would get tedious. Let me close by noting one quotation where the article does not do violence to the truth.

On Aug. 5, Ellis replied to a woman who congratulated him on his appointment.

“Many thanks,” he wrote. “This is going to be a battle royale for the soul of UVA and a microcosm of what must happen across America to save the soul of our country.” He urged her to join The Jefferson Council. “We need to build this into a big Army to fight agst the UVA Adm and unfortunately to also fight agst the UVA Alumni Asso which has become a total mktg arm of the Presidents office.”

Yes, there will be a battle royale for the soul of UVa, and it is just one front in a national struggle over the future of the American university. The article signals the fact that The Washington Post has taken notice of that battle — and it sends out a flare that the newspaper, which is kept afloat financially by one of the most privileged White men in the galaxy and is run by a disproportionately White editorial team, is siding with the cultural elite on the issue of DE&I. Instead of honestly inquiring what form DE&I is taking at UVa, the Post will suppress discussion by pursuing the politics of personal destruction.

That strategy is highly effective. Few people want to risk being portrayed as a racist, a homophobe, a hater, or an ignorant reactionary. Rest assured, today’s article will not be the last article designed to destroy Bert Ellis. Be equally assured, Ellis could care less what the numnuts at The Washington Post say about him. He refuses to be cancelled.

James A. Bacon serves with Bert Ellis on the executive board of The Jefferson Council. This column, republished from Bacon’s Rebellion, reflects his personal views, not an official position of the Council.