Envision This: a Lawn with No Signage

Look, ma, no signs! Residential rooms on the University of Virginia’s Lawn in 2010 before unsightly signage became ubiquitous. Source: mbell1975 flickr account.

by James A. Bacon

In a letter written to Aubrey Daniel, one of the strongest critics of the UVa administration, Rector James B. Murray Jr. brings out new facts and arguments regarding Jim Ryan’s handling of the “F— UVA” Lawn sign controversy.

Criticism has focused on a student’s use of profanity in a sign on the door of her Lawn residence. Although the university has rules against the indiscriminate display of signage, it has not enforced them in recent years. Therefore, Ryan has decided, singling out the student to remove her offensive sign at this time would violate her right to free speech. Recent photos focusing on a handful of offensive signs, Murray writes, “do not tell the full story.” He elaborates:

Over the course of the past several decades we have allowed signs to proliferate on Lawn room doors. The signs you have seen in photos are a small fraction of the signs that are posted today and have been posted on most doors each school year for a long time. We have allowed our own rules to be stretched beyond sense, increment by increment, relying upon little more than the good judgment of our accomplished Lawn residents regarding content. Until this past week one would be hard pressed to find but a few doors that did not have multiple signs – some political, some encouraging virus protective measures, some messages to friends, some cheering the football team, and much more. Lots of signs, the entire length of the Lawn. We have a contract with each resident. It includes a code of conduct. In my view, we have been too lax in interpreting that contract regarding signs. In doing so we have established a regrettable norm that now must be revised. …

You wrote: “All the doors on the Lawn are meant to be harmonious in appearance. All were meant to look the same.” Unfortunately, they do all the look the same; at present they are harmoniously ugly, littered
with signs. Constitutionally, we cannot today choose one ugly door for special treatment, saying that it alone “defaces” the Lawn.

Personally, this argument strikes me as an excuse for inaction. All signs must come down, in accordance with Lawn residents’ contracts with the University. As described by Jim Sherlock in a post yesterday, the relevant section of the contract reads as follows (my emphasis):

“The University retains the unilateral right to terminate this License at any time. Failure of either party to insist upon strict performance of any of the Terms or Conditions herein shall not be deemed a waiver of any rights or remedies of either party, and shall not be deemed a waiver of any subsequent breach or default in any of the Terms or Conditions herein.”

This is not a question of asking one or two students to take down signs. All signs must come down, save for “a 1.5ft x 2ft pin board for displaying paper materials,” as specified in the contract.

Remarkably, as Murray acknowledges in a footnote in his letter, some students have begun acting in accordance with the contract. “In the past week, a number of Lawn residents who reject the offensive messages have launched a silent counter-protest. They have stripped their doors clean of signs, leaving them as pristine as some have been for many years.”

Unfortunately, the administration has boxed itself in. It would be humiliating at this point for Ryan to invoke the language of the residence contract. But Murray is Rector, effectively chairman of the board of visitors, so he is a step removed and in a position to be more intellectually honest. I await his response to Sherlock’s critique.

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42 responses to “Envision This: a Lawn with No Signage

  1. Good and Great universities do not allow their nests to be chronically fouled. Imagine, UVa. has spent the almost impossible sum of $60 million dollars of other people’s money to rehab. the Rotunda; a small 40,000+ sq. ft. building rehabed for $3.5 million in late 1970s. Meanwhile UVa. allows the Rotuna’s integral academy village, a World Heritage Site, to be chronically trashed up, both literally and figuratively. Recall, for example, the ongoing serpentine walls controversy, and chronic trashing up of Thomas Jefferson statute fronting Rotunda.

    What does all this mean? This is a sure sign of cultural collapse ongoing at UVA, its chronic loss of discipline, focus and mission, as it despoils its own heritage, its own legacy and culture, one so grand that it represents the only World Heritage Site in America.

    In short, this trashing up of Mr. Jefferson’s academic village is a perfect metaphor for the UVa. spoilage of West Civilization in its classrooms, an ongoing genocide for a least a decade. It’s time to stand and stop UVa.’s destruction of our children’s heritage, and our nation’s future. That is what is at stake here.

  2. This is a well written article on higher education’s embrace of extremist ideas on race:
    https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2020/10/the-blacklivesmattering-of-higher-ed-some-notes-from-the-field/

  3. Worked like a champ…
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highway_Beautification_Act

    Keep America Beautiful — Wear Your Mask

  4. I get the impression that the door signage, to this point, has become a kind of a tradition… and yep, if one is offensive then you have to decide what rule will apply to all that is not based on content.

    • Agree completely. If you have a rule, enforce it fairly across the board. Or repeal or modify it. Government cannot make decisions on speech based on its content, except in very rare situations. And this is not one of them.

      • Finally, a breath of common sense. The University cannot, and should not, selectively enforce the “no sign” contract. If signs are going to be allowed, notwithstanding the official policy, all must be allowed. Instead of ranting about the administration allowing the sign, commenters should be celebrating the university upholding one of the foundations of American democracy–freedom of speech, even speech we don’t like.

        • I don’t think anyone here has called for selective enforcement of anything. When this issue first came up on BR, I and several others suggested as a solution a policy which forbids signs of any kind on the exterior of the Lawn Rooms.

  5. If these signs were on the doors of the barracks at VMI, they could and would be taken down immediately. That is because VMI has a standard policy that is uniformly enforced. Rector Murray was right that UVA painted itself into a corner. I think the best UVA can do is implement and/or enforce a consistent policy next year.

    If UVA did act to remove this signage now, there would likely be a legal challenge and the administration would lose in a high profile way. But more importantly, this situation would escalate from a tempest in a teapot (albeit a potentially $150M tempest) to at least a tropical storm.

    • >>If UVA did act to remove this signage now, there would likely be a legal challenge and the administration would lose.

      Do you think that would be true if the University decided that signs had gotten out a hand generally and now enforced the removal of all of them? Does it matter whether they do it now or next year? If so, why?

      • ” we’re the Alumni old white guy grumps and we DEMAND you do something now”.

        UVA – eff off geezers.

      • In my view, the argument that would prevail would likely be that UVA took action in response to this specific door signage, and therefore would not be permissible. The new school year will bring residence turnover on the lawn. Her sign, and all others, will come down with that change. That gives the university a chance for a new start and a consistent policy.

        But the bigger point, I think, is that taking action to remove it would likely cause this to spiral into something bigger, and that could even consume Ryan’s presidency.

        You have JD in your name on this site. What is your legal view?

  6. Who cares what VMI would do? It is off on its own as one of the few state run military schools and had to be forced to accept women students even though their tax dollars were paying for it.

    • I used VMI only as an example of a consistent policy that would allow for the legal removal of the sign on the door. What UVA should do as policy is another matter.

      Many people pay taxes to support UVA even though they have no children or their children will not have the chance to attend. The UVA student median family income is probably nearly 2X the median of the state.

      • Izzo –

        UVa. Today – now, since its abrupt and drama filled removal and reinstatement of Teresa Sullivan in 2012, UVa. been embroiled in a seemingly constant mass hysteria. This hysteria involves students, faculty, administrators, and UVa. Board of Visitors, even testimony at a US Congressional hearing.

        This ever growing assortment of controversies range from sudden public appearance of $2.1 billion Strategic (Research) Investment Fund, rape epidemics, murder of students, race and gender wars, trashing of white Fraternity boys, slavery, Thomas Jefferson (his lifestyle, writings and Academic Village, its World Heritage site registration), UVA’s logo, UVA’s propaganda machine, UVa.s Christmas celebration Video at Ryan’s house, UVA’s commencement and graduation videos, the participation UVA’s faculty, student, and administrators in 2017 Charlottesville riots, the intimidation of UVa.’s Brody Jewish Center meetings, the removal of the Jew reading the Torah on the Grounds, the mob breaking up the Board of Visitor meeting, resulting in dismissal of a white security guard (with a wife and two kids) who uttered the words “Make America Great Again, the $60 million Rotunda remodel, $14 million UVA president’s house remodel, the seven figure Alderman Library remodel the altered its prior function from that solely of a library, the chronic trashing of Thomas Jefferson statute at Rotunda, and now of the Lawn too, and trashing of Veterans memorial day, now the ongoing renaming frenzy of buildings and faculties on the Grounds starting with Curry school. The list goes goes on and on, year after year, endlessly expanding.

        Why?

        What’s happening at UVa to feed this on going slow motion nervous breakdown and crack up at UVA that began in May and June of 2012?

        • Reed,

          I feel for you guys because I know you love UVA and worry about its direction. But today’s UVA is not the UVA you remember (relatively traditional, mainstream professors) or even the UVA of E.D. Hirsch (who described himself as “a political liberal but an educational conservative”) and it won’t be again. That UVA lost out to the views of people like Stanley Fish and it is mostly severed from the past. There are elements to universities that make us think of permanence (the architecture of the Lawn, the Jeffersonian history), but the people at UVA, with a few aging exceptions like Larry Sabato, are all different now.

          I think this all started before 2012. Teresa Sullivan might have accelerated change, but it started before her. She was brought in to transform UVA into a more substantial research university to shore up rankings. UVA tried to execute part of the University of Michigan game plan, which was to leverage the medical system (lavishly funded by world standards) to increase research expenditures adjacent to medicine and use excess cash flows to provide seed research further afield. The Michigan approach also involved using humanities and arts tuition and fees to fund sciences and research there. It is difficult to say how much of that has gone on at UVA. The UVA of your day tried to differentiate itself more with the overall undergraduate experience, combined with halo prestige from programs like law. Her presidency was all about becoming more like Michigan and Berkeley.

          It seems like Ryan would like to think of himself as “woke” but grounded, but for the undergraduates like the woman who posted the expletive on her door, he is a white, male “joke”. He’s caught in no man’s land trying to navigate between students like the young woman and “distinguished alumni” like Bert Ellis. (Note that the young woman would likely consider Bert Ellis an old white, male joke.) You could see this when he, despite his stellar academic record and getting Supreme Court clerkship (one of the biggest, shiniest gold stars you can get), couldn’t form a coherent thought during his recorded phone call. I don’t think presidents like Casteen at UVA or Sullivan or Reveley at W&M would have turned into jello like that, but they are long retired.

          Even if the signage is taken down (which I do not think would be wise this year) or a new policy is enforced next year, it would not change the underlying situation at UVA.

      • From: Walter Smith
        Sent: Saturday, October 17, 2020 11:32 AM
        To: Tom Neale
        Cc: Aubrey
        Subject: Re: Quick update on an expansion of the signs

        Tom – I don’t know if you saw my email to President Ryan and his “response.” Attached

        The reason they keep hiding behind the First Amendment is because they are not in substantive disagreement with the “feelings” of the protesters.

        So their only real disagreement (students and admin) is in tactics and that the signs are causing alumni to probe deeper and see what is going on. You hear that in Ryan’s talk with Azher. In their Newspeak, they are “allies.” The woke peoples’ problem is Ryan isn’t being “enough” of an ally. And this is why they must be stopped – Martin Niemoller’s regret is playing out before our eyes. The Jacobins will eventually bring the guillotine in for Ryan and Murray and all the others… You would think educated people like Ryan et al would get this, except they are part of the true believers…

        I would like for the alumni to look at the Racial Equity Task Force Report and to check the footnotes and links, not just the ones cited in my email to Pres Ryan. I can’t remember where it is, but one of the various reporting entities began each report with the travesty of UVA being on Monacan land. And now you see that in some of the signs…

        Earlier, did you say Azher went to Episcopal High School in Alexandria? Must be tough getting all that privilege and hating the people who supply it…

        I went to Azher’s Twitter page. Interesting… One of the commenters wrote how he wrote F*&k the CIA and got admitted and the only reason UVA is mad is because of the alumni…and he’s right! So besides the Lawn selection committee, I’d like to know about admissions. FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) already has a survey about how liberal (not in the good sense of the word) the student body is and how conservatives /conservative speech is squelched or restricted.

        Walter Smith
        VP, Counsel
        The YouDecide Building
        Glen Allen, Virginia 23060

  7. If Republicans in Virginia find themselves in the proverbial desert for 40 years, I hope they do some soul searching and wind up here.

    This is, what, the 800th post about a single door at some state university? This is what conservatives think is worth so much time and energy?

    Meanwhile, the popular governor had a kidnapping plot against him foiled by the FBI and that ranks one post by the blog’s token liberal where the conservative response in the comments ranged from non-sequiters about blackface to “but when will the left denounce their extremists???” whataboutism. Even if you don’t like Northam or the job he’s done, that’s just an absurd inversion of priorities.

    You can trot out the “we’re just trying to challenge the narrative” but when you decide to plaster the face of some random college girl on your blog because of her exterior design choices but can’t be bothered to do the same with the men who literally wanted to kidnap the governor you send a clear signal to anyone on the fence about the broader question of chosing liberalism or conservatism.

    And if your nightmare comes true and Virginia slowly turns into California, conservatives will only have themselves to blame for alienating anyone who cares more about felonies than obscenities.

    • Wait! Who’s the token liberal?

      Larry, do you suppose it is you or me?

      • token smoken….. 😉 You’re forgetting Peter!

        he/she speaks the truth – BR is becoming it’s own special echo chamber at times… a “refuge” for those have joined the culture wars and realize that they are no longer moderates or even traditional convervatives (save for one or two).

        • Okay, you can be token smoken, and I’ll be smokin’ token.

          Do you suppose he meant himself? That’s 3!

        • You forget Dick. Clearly left of center, he has his moments. So we’re approaching 5. If only we organize. Pork Belly Revenge…

          Kinda have to wonder what upsets them so. The sign? The girl? Her creds? Her religion? Her color? Or, her youth?

          • Well, to be fair, initially, all we knew about was the sign not the person behind it.

            However, originally, the whole mess was not rooted in the existence of the sign itself but in the sentiments it expressed with respect to UVA and it’s TJ / systemic racism heritage. No matter that signs on doors was an established tradition, and I seriously doubt prior signs never crossed that “line” that this one seemingly did in terms of crudity.

            But these days, the culture-war afflicted will seize on some “outrage” and it sets off a frenzy of sorts in hopes that it will spread and set off a wider backlash that will then cause an institution like UVA to have to yell “uncle”.

            If it’s not UVA, it’s the Fairfax schools, if not them then the Richmond Mayor, if not him VDH or Filler-Corn or “blackface” – on and on and now stuff like “critical race theory” and “anti-racism”.

            Key some of these words and phrases into GOOGLE and a plethora of other “right” sites flows forth – often with the same exact narratives. Anytime a new “outrage” occurs a similar stream of similar websites rumbles forth anew.

            Conservatives these days are split down the middle between traditional Conservatives who tend to be fiscally conservative and pragmatic and abhor political warfare and the “outrage” mob who, at best, give lip service to things like fiscal conservatism…and compromise – like “oh yeah, that too” as they continue their cultural outrage.

            When I first started reading BR, it was primarily a Conservative/libertarian leaning blog without much, if any Culture War warts. It would complain about Government and institutions but usually in a non-partisan way – focusing on the issues and what should be done instead. Race was an issue even then though. But very little demonizing of individuals or personal attacks. Dick reminds me of that time.

            I miss that BR but recognize the world has changed an so has BR.

          • Righteous Indignation. It’s a wonderful feeling and you needn’t be correct to have it. In fact, feigned is even better.

            You see, in their view, this student took Ryan to task not because she may have been correct, but because he was inept. Really?

    • I think we should form a liberal secret society for the preservation of wooden toilet seats. We can call ourselves the Birch John Society.

      The first action we must take is to never — NEVER — tell the concrete brained Republicans who live inside the BR drum that they are casting themselves into the desert.

  8. What’s happened to UVA today?

    I say it started before Ryan with Sullivan and Dragas and just got worse with the BOV behaving themselves but the same Alumni that were cheering Dragas on – continuing their attacks on UVA and a lot of this coincides with Conservatives attacks in general on Higher Ed – not just UVA – but quite a few other public Colleges and Universities in Virginia and beyond.

  9. Larry — “When I first started reading BR, it was primarily a Conservative/libertarian leaning blog without much, if any Culture War warts. It would complain about Government and institutions but usually in a non-partisan way – focusing on the issues and what should be done instead. Race was an issue even then though. But very little demonizing of individuals or personal attacks. Dick reminds me of that time.”

    Perhaps, but I would point out that what Haner has written recently about Dominion, regulation, and the GA, and Sherlock on health care were great analytical pieces of work on issues that can and should be addressed in Virginia. When society is fractured, as it is now, disagreements focus on symbols like the expletives on the lawn, because emotion prevails and reason takes a back seat.

    • But you can disagree respectfully in debate without demonizing people including those you disagree with in debate.

      Now days, blog posts in BR are laced with phrases like “social justice warriors” and “leftists”, “snowflakes”, etc… before we ever get to the issue itself and even the issues are distorted from the realities.

      Teachers, and College administrators, even the head of VDH and the Govenors are routinely attacked as individuals… and their perceived motives….

      • “But you can disagree respectfully in debate without demonizing people including those you disagree with in debate.”

        Larry, I don’t disagree. But take a long, critical look at things you write before you hit “post comment”.

  10. “When society is fractured, as it is now, disagreements focus on symbols like the expletives on the lawn, because emotion prevails and reason takes a back seat.”

    Yes, that usually happens when some threaten your culture, your government, nation, and your legacy. We don’t survive by reason alone. History makes that plain.

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