by James A. Bacon
The University of Virginia Board of Visitors did more than endorse free speech on university campuses Friday when it voted to adopt a Council of Presidents statement on free speech: it endorsed the principle of viewpoint diversity.
In 2021 the Board had embraced a 2021 statement on free speech by a commission appointed by President James Ryan. But that statement alluded only vaguely to the value of “exposure to a range of ideas.” If the ideas discussed at UVa consisted only of different strains of leftism, the declaration on free speech wouldn’t amount to much.
The statement of the Council of Presidents, which was crafted at the request of Governor Glenn Youngkin, made it clear that the exercise of free speech and the diversity of ideas are intertwined, and it implied that a wide range of ideas should be encouraged. [My emphasis added below.]
As presidents of Virginia’s public colleges and universities, we unequivocally support free expression and viewpoint diversity on our campuses. Free expression is the fundamental basis for both academic freedom and for effective teaching and learning inside and outside the classroom. Our member universities and colleges are bound to uphold the First Amendment. We are committed to promoting this constitutional freedom through robust statements and policies that are formulated through shared governance processes and through actions that reflect and reinforce this core foundation of education. We value a scholarly environment that is supported by a diversity of research and intellectual perspectives among our faculty and staff. We pledge to promote and uphold inclusivity, academic freedom, free expression, and an environment that promotes civil discourse across differences. We will protect these principles when others seek to restrict them.
Ryan told the board that he wants the Council of Presidents statement to “inform what we do at UVa.”
The challenge for Ryan and Provost Ian Baucom will be implementing those principles in an institution marked by a left/right ideological imbalance of roughly ten-to-one; in which a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion bureaucracy suffuses university policies with a leftist understanding of “equity” and requires employees to express their views of DEI in “diversity statements”; and in which many students and the faculty self-censor for fear of igniting a social media storm, sparking social ostracism, or suffering administrative punishment.
The toxic nature of UVa’s left-wing sub-culture has been on vivid display in recent weeks in the accusations of racism and homophobia directed against board member Bert Ellis. (I’ll have more to say about those accusations in future posts.) Those accusations did not arise during the diversity-of-thought discussion, but they lurked just below the surface.
Douglas Wetmore, a Richmond healthcare-technology executive, kicked off the discussion by asking what the administration is doing to make intellectual diversity a reality. The Youngkin appointee recalled his experience as a UVa undergraduate and a law school student. The economics department, he said, had a robust exchange of viewpoints between Keynesians and monetarists. The law school had vigorous debate between Constitutional traditionalists and activists.
“My question: What are we doing proactively to ensure students are exposed to a wide range of views?… Do department heads go out of their way to balance out points of view?”
As UVa’s chief academic officer, Baucom addressed Wetmore’s question. One way the university ensures diversity of viewpoints is through the structure of the curriculum. Regardless of content, he said, the College of Arts & Sciences (which he headed before rising to Provost) is “committed to teaching our students how to debate.” As an example, he cited the Engaging Differences curriculum, which is designed to encourage students to “argue for or against” an issue.
Another way to promote intellectual diversity, said Baucom, is to avoid getting ensnared in partisan differences between Democrats and Republicans. Rather, UVa teaches “large histories of thought.” To understand 18th century history, for instance, he said, it is necessary to understand a range of thinkers from Burke and Locke to Rousseau.
Baucom also said it was possible to ensure diversity of thought by employing a global framework for understanding the world and by maintaining a focus on classical antiquity. Courses in the classics department may not be in high demand, he said, but the field contributes to a well-rounded education. He also cited gifts from Texas philanthropist John Nau who has endowed a professorship of history, principles and history of democracy.
Baucom assured the Board that university search committees “cannot inquire” whether a faculty applicant is a Democrat or Republican. During his time as dean, he never asked a job applicant his or her partisan loyalties.
The provost did not mention the so-called Diversity Statements that were instituted during his tenure as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Job applicants and current employees are instructed to fill out forms describing their commitment to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. (See “Ceaser Crosses the Rubicon, Refuses to Give DEI Loyalty Oath.”)
Jim Murray, a former rector, raised the issue of DEI statements as an ideological “screening tool.” “We seem to be directing viewpoint conformity,” he said. “It seems Orwellian.”
Susan Kirk, a medical school professor and non-voting faculty member, defended DEI statements as a tool for determining whether faculty members share the university’s core values. “We’ve made some significant increases in DEI,” she said. “DEI … should be a value we all share.” Referring to the hospital’s operations, she said, “Patients at UVa will be better taken care of by the doctors who look like them…. People need to be prodded a little bit.”
Other board members shared their perspectives. Leslie Kendrick, who chaired UVa’s free speech commission, said she looked for diversity of thought when she attended law school. “Encountering different viewpoints, listening to other viewpoints, respecting those viewpoints is critical.”
Carlos Brown, a Dominion Energy executive, also praised the tolerance of different viewpoints. “I completely support this statement of free speech…. When I was in law school, the professors were conservative. I was a social-justice guy. But I learned from the exchange.”
Ryan acknowledged a tension between “do you endorse our common values?” and “do you believe in diversity of thought?” He said UVa should endorse the principle of not restricting peoples’ perspectives.
The devil is always in the details. Endorsing lofty ideals is one thing. Applying them in practice is another. UVa has witnessed an effort sustained over months to malign Ellis and force his removal from the Board of Visitors. Ellis, who has spoken critically of UVa’s extensive DEI bureaucracy, was uncharacteristically quiet during the diversity-of-thought discussion. The student newspaper, the faculty senate, and other groups have slandered him as a racist and homophobe on the basis of a string of trumped-up outrages. Critics never hid their underlying concern that Ellis is skeptical of DEI.
Only time will tell if Ryan’s and Baucom’s endorsement of diversity of thought will protect those who question the wisdom of institutionalizing a bureaucracy that, according to a recent study by the Virginia Association of Scholars, numbered 77 employees in 2021. So far, the administration has declined to condemn those who vilified Ellis as — in the words of a pamphlet distributed on the grounds during the Board meeting — “a known racist, homophobe, and bigoted asshole of a human being.”
As a prelude to the discussion about diversity of thought, Ellis apologized to the Board for intemperate words — such as “numnuts” and “shmucks” — he had written in the expectation of privacy but were made public through a Freedom of Information Act query. Stung by relentless criticism, he sat silently through the rest of the session.
In the end, the Board voted unanimously to endorse the Council of Presidents statement for free speech, intellectual diversity and civil dialogue.
Update: Tish Jennings, chair of the Faculty Senate, submitted this statement to the Board of Visitors on the diversity issue:
The UVA faculty is committed to fostering an environment of civil discourse as we strive for inclusive excellence based in our values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We feel that this is especially important at this university because we have a long history of exclusion. We believe that open and respectful communication is essential to creating a welcoming and inclusive community where all individuals can thrive. We are dedicated to engaging in conversations that embrace diverse perspectives and opinions, and to actively seeking out and valuing the voices of those who may hold different viewpoints than our own. We acknowledge that civil discourse is not always easy, but we believe that it is necessary to build understanding and empathy among individuals with differing backgrounds and experiences. We aim to listen with an open mind, speak with respect, and approach every conversation with a willingness to learn and
James A. Bacon is executive director of The Jefferson Council. Bert Ellis is president.