by James A. Bacon
Governor Glenn Youngkin has announced his appointments to the boards of visitors of Virginia’s colleges and universities, at least one of which has the potential to be highly consequential — Bert Ellis, a serial entrepreneur and major donor, at the University of Virginia.
Ellis has been a prominent critic of UVa’s leftward drift under President Jim Ryan. He is president of The Jefferson Council, an alumni organization formed a year and a half ago to preserve free speech, promote intellectual diversity, protect the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, and preserve the dignity of the Jefferson-designed “academical village” centered on the Rotunda and Lawn. (Full disclosure: I am vice president-communications of The Jefferson Council.)
The current board has provided little pushback to Ryan’s policies. Rector Whitt Clement has worked behind the scenes to blunt the worst excesses, but he avoids confrontation. His personal style is to be a conciliator. He has achieved some success on free-speech issues, but has been powerless to halt more fundamental changes in university culture.
In an update to Jefferson Council members in December, Ellis noted approvingly that Governor Glenn Youngkin, Lt. Governor Winsome Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares were are all interested in “re-focusing UVA and other colleges and K-12 schools in Virginia on educating students and not brainwashing them with the Woke/CRT/DEI mantras that have overtaken UVA and almost all other colleges and K-12 schools in Virginia and across our country.”
Observing that the Governor will have the opportunity to replace UVa’s entire Board of Visitors over the next four years, Ellis said Youngkin could “make the University a place permitting open dialogue on all matters and where education and merit are the managing principles of the University.”
Despite his sometimes fiery pronouncements as president of The Jefferson Council, Ellis said he does not intend to be a bomb-thrower. “I’m not going to make stuff happen on the first day,” he told The Daily Progress. “There’s a lot of things to learn and people to meet.”
What makes Youngkin’s appointment unusual is that Ellis, a resident of Hilton Head, S.C., did not contribute to Youngkin’s political campaign. Indeed, the only donation he has made to a Virginia political candidate recorded in the Virginia Public Access Project database is $656 to Terry McAuliffe’s campaign in 2013. His appointment defies common practice, in which Virginia governors treat prestigious university board appointments as rewards for contributors and political allies.
Two of the other UVa board appointments — Stephen P. Long and Doug Wetmore, both hailing from the Richmond area — donated to the Youngkin Inaugural Committee. The fourth appointee, Amanda Pillion serves on the Abingdon Town Council and is married to state Senator Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon.
Youngkin’s pick of Long also defies convention, in that Long, who practices anesthesiology at the Virginia Commonwealth University hospital, is not a UVa alumnus. What he has is a professional background in healthcare, as does Wetmore whose company, Centauri Health Solutions, operates outpatient imaging centers. As part of its mission, the Board of Visitors oversees the University of Virginia Health System, an enterprise that has revenues as large or larger than the university.
Ellis, a “double Hoo” with B.S. and MBA degrees, is CEO of Ellis Communications, an Atlanta-based, early-stage venture capital firm. In the past two years, he has spent much of his time in Charlottesville, where he is a co-investor in The White Spot diner, a fixture in The Corner across the street from the university. Ellis has been known to work behind the counter himself and serve up the Spot’s signature dish, the Gus Burger. He has said he would dis-invest himself of his interest in the restaurant if it would be deemed a conflict of interest.
Four Northam appointees will rotate off the Board, including Frank M. Conner III, who was instrumental in recruiting Ryan to the UVa presidency.
The reaction from the UVa administration was muted.
UVA has made great progress toward the goals described in our 2030 Strategic Plan, but we have more to do,” University President Jim Ryan said. “I’m grateful for the service of our outgoing board members toward these efforts, and I am looking forward to collaborating with our newest board members as we continue to work to make the University the absolute best version of itself.”
While Northam appointees will continue to dominate the Board for the next year, several issues are likely to prove contentious.
First is the Board’s refusal to back off its decision to increase tuition and fees 4.7% in 2022 and 3.7% in 2023. Concerned about the impact of inflation on Virginia families, Youngkin has asked all public universities to forego tuition increases this year. Those who agreed to freeze rates include: Virginia Commonwealth University, James Madison University, Virginia Military Institute, the University of Mary Washington, Longwood University, Old Dominion University, Virginia Tech, the College of William & Mary, Virginia State University, and Norfolk State University.
Reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
The school conducted an analysis of the current economic conditions and university needs and welcomed the public to comment before the vote was conducted, said school spokesperson Brian Coy.
Coy noted that UVA is one of only two public colleges in the country that meets the demonstrated financial need of all its undergraduate students through scholarships and loans.
“We are committed to access, affordability and excellence,” he added.
It would cost UVA $7.5 million to flatten tuition, Youngkin said, which he termed a small commitment for a school with a “giant budget” of almost $2 billion, an endowment valued last year at $14.5 billion and state funding that increased 18% from the previous biennium.
“I think that’s a really poor statement on their behalf,” he said.
Another set of issues revolves around the Ryan administration’s aggressive implementation of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Many if not all schools at UVa have implemented “anti-racist” DEI training, require job applicants to write DEI statements, require employees to write DEI statements for job reviews, and through the use of the Common Applications, require student applicants to submit diversity essays. Through these and other measures, large and small, it appears that UVa now employs leftist social-justice principles as a litmus test for hiring, firing, training, promotion, and admissions.
In May Youngkin distributed a letter to public college presidents laying out his expectations for higher education. He urged them to “nurture a culture that prioritizes civil discourse and debate, both inside and outside the classroom.” They should address (1) annual faculty, staff, and student training; (2) approaches to prioritize hiring of staff and faculty with diverse political perspectives; and (3) support of events and forums “to model the exchange of ideas from different perspectives in a civil and productive manner.”
Although Ryan has publicly pronounced his support for “free speech,” his provost and deans have pushed the ideological center of gravity increasingly to the left through the appointment of new faculty and staff, accelerating a trend begun under Ryan’s predecessor toward an intellectual monoculture.