by Loren Lomasky
Poor University of Virginia, the bad luck just kept coming. In 2014 the campus was rocked by the story of a vicious gang rape perpetrated at one of the fraternities. “Story” is the operative word; it transpired that the Rolling Stone exposé was entirely fabricated. Three years later the alt right came to town. Although to the best of my knowledge no actual member of the university community took part in its marches, the image of troglodytic wielders of tiki torches spreading their menace across grounds was indelibly etched into the American imagination. And then came Covid.
These were external inflictions, but on Nov. 13, 2022, the university experienced an unexpected trauma. On a bus returning from a cultural outing to Washington, DC, one student gunned down three others. UVA responded by sending teams of counselors across the campus to respond to the pain of those who had lost friends or classmates. The university has no special expertise in psychological healing, but to its credit it did what it could.
Entirely different were alterations made to the academic mission. Backed by university president James Ryan, provost Ian Baucom decreed that no graded assignments be required from students until after the Thanksgiving break, that is, the close of term. What if periodic writing of papers is necessary to the integrity of the particular course? The question did not arise; upholding academic standards had no place on the administration’s priority list.
In case these measures were insufficient to calm the atmosphere, Baucom also decreed that all fall semester classes were now to be graded as “Pass-No Pass.” At first glance this may not seem especially radical. Almost all colleges offer an option for students to take an occasional ungraded class. Typically that option will be elected so that one can try out a subject distant from one’s major without undue risk to the grade point average. That, however, is not at all like what the administration imposed. First, “Pass-No Pass” was not an option available to some students for some courses; everyone in every course was summarily included. Second, it was not a choice between a graded or ungraded course. Rather, all students would complete the class, find out in the fullness of time what grade had been assigned to them, and only at that point choose whether to keep the grade or simply receive credit for the course. Presumably the idea behind the policy – I say “presumably” because the administration is not often inclined to spell out its reasoning – is to minimize potential anxiety. Students need not worry about receiving an undesired grade because they can simply make it go away.
One wonders, though, what effect this policy is likely to have on students’ incentive to study industriously and get the most they can out of the course. If the cost to them of liberally substituting club time for book time is reduced, perhaps to zero, it doesn’t take a savant to figure out the likely response. This is meant in no way as a criticism of UVA student conscientiousness; in my experience Hoos are hard to match. Rather, it is to observe that they, like the rest of us, rationally respond to the choices on offer. If professors’ standards are effectively removed from the equation by an administration telling students that they need not bear the consequences of shirking on study, then results are predictable. Students may enjoy enhanced party time but they will be less well-educated.
The great tragedy of November was the senseless deaths of three young men. But there were also associated lesser tragedies, chief among them the cheapening of UVA’s academic mission. Nothing can bring back to life those who have perished, but the health of a great American university is always an open question. There is no denying that in Charlottesville that UVA’s health has taken a severe body blow. No one will ever look back at the fall 2022 semester as a high point of academic excellence. But whether it proves to be a one-off, an unfortunate valley separating peaks, or stands as precedent for further academic debasement, remains to be determined. That determination will be made by the stakeholders: those who love UVA and those who carry fiduciary responsibility for its well-being.
It is too much to expect students to protest against measures put in place with the explicit intent of easing their way. It is true that in the long run that which diminishes the quality of UVA degrees does them harm, but that run is long indeed. (I can add, however, that people who spend time chatting with undergraduates will be cheered by their disdainful amusement at the administration’s estimation of their fragility.)
Faculty should be the natural locus of opposition to those who would foul the house in which they live. At UVA there remains a significant preponderance of professors whose priorities are teaching and research as opposed to classroom proselytization. I can attest from personal experience that many do indeed deplore the evisceration of the fall semester, but they prefer to offer that observation sotto voce rather than in a public setting. In part that is because UVA lacks a reliable structure for eliciting and passing along faculty judgments.
Perhaps more important is that university officials have shown themselves thoroughly willing to impose unpleasant consequences on those regarded as holdouts. (The concept of a “loyal opposition” is not acknowledged.) It is not only deans and provosts who police what is permissible. Almost all American colleges and universities feature a large and growing rank of non-academic bureaucrats empowered by local policy and federal guidelines. They can be identified by initials such as DEI or EOCR. They may know little or nothing about academic standards, but through expertise in paper-shuffling they serve as unaccountable prosecutor, judge, and jury of students and faculty. The infection at UVA is not as pronounced as at some other well-known institutions, but it is not negligible. Only a fool or a hero will have the temerity to disregard the threat they represent.
Alumni might well be dismayed at the insult to their alma mater, but they have rich and busy lives that afford them little time to investigate the inner workings of the university. And of course most of the information that reaches them is filtered through the institution’s functionaries. UVA is also the treasured possession of citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia, but it’s not clear how they could be mobilized to take an active interest in arcane academic affairs – basketball is another matter.
On the one hand, a university that has celebrated its bicentennial can truly be considered venerable. On the other hand, the post-Jim Crow pre-Woke university that many of us care about has had a much shorter life. Whether its great days have passed will not become apparent for many years. Even now, though, it is reasonable to judge that in either the longer or shorter version of the history of the university, no single individual has done it as grievous a harm as the man who now serves as its chief academic officer.
Loren Lomasky is a professor at the University of Virginia.
Among the few propositions on which Loren Lomasky and provost Ian Baucom agree is that the University of Virginia would be better off with exactly one of them gone.