UVa Does Foster Free Expression, VP Advancement Says

Mark M. Luellen, vice president for advancement

by James A. Bacon

The upper echelons of the University of Virginia administration are keenly aware that many alumni are unhappy with the hostility toward viewpoints that don’t conform with the dominant leftist culture at the university. As Mark M. Luellen, vice president for advancement acknowledged in a recent dear-colleagues letter, “Many of us have engaged in conversations with constituents concerned about a perceived lack of ideological balance at the University.”

President Jim Ryan recognizes these concerns, Luellen continued, and he wants to ensure the university community that “diverse viewpoints and civil discourse are encouraged.” The letter went on to tout the Statement on Free Expression and Free Inquiry that was approved recently by the Board of Visitors.

As I have observed more than once, however, it’s one thing to propound abstract principles and quite another to put them into practice — especially when new faculty and staff hires are pushing the university’s ideological center of gravity ever further to the left.

Perhaps in expectation of continued skepticism, the President’s Office compiled a list of efforts, outlets and organizations promoting the civil exchange of ideas on the Grounds. Luellen thought it would helpful for the university community to see “the sheer volume of efforts in place to foster an environment where all ideological positions are discussed and evaluated openly.”

I have been critical of the Ryan administration on this score, but I believe in giving the other side its say. So, I publish Luellen’s list below. I encourage readers with first-hand familiarity with any of these initiatives to post their observations in the comments section. Do these forums truly promote intellectual diversity and the exchange of ideas or have they become mechanisms for enforcing the prevailing orthodoxies?

President’s Office

Democracy Dialogues: The goal of the Democracy Dialogues is to address relevant topics and challenges facing democracy by bringing together experts from at least two different perspectives who will explore these most critical questions. The Dialogues are part of a University-wide effort and are co-sponsored by UVA’s Democracy Initiative. The most recent event took place in April and featured Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Tim Kaine (D-VA).

Free Speech Committee: First Amendment expert Leslie Kendrick of UVA Law chaired the Committee on Free Expression and Free Inquiry that brought together a remarkably impressive, accomplished, and diverse—in every sense of that term—group. This Committee has unanimously endorsed a statement that identifies the role that free expression and free inquiry play in UVA’s academic enterprise and how they shape engagement with the ideas of others.

‘Connecting Conversations’ – BOV members and President’s Office Staff: Students, faculty, staff, and BOV members came together through a lunch series this spring to share a meal and discuss specific topics. These lunches served as an opportunity for participants to connect with others of various backgrounds and have a meaningful dialogue with each other. We are exploring ways to scale this project in the upcoming academic year so that more students will have a chance to get involved.

Double Take: In an effort to build bridges across lines of difference, the Double Take storytelling initiative amplifies the various stories of our community at an annual event and underscores the idea of connection.

Outreach lunches with students: Throughout the year, President’s Office staff met with students from organizations dedicated to dialogue across differences, with the goal of supporting the organizations’ efforts and helping them to expand their reach.

Outreach to conservative faculty: The President and Provost have reached out directly to conservative faculty members to understand what the University can do to better support their work and cultivate an environment that welcomes all political views.

UVA Faculty Efforts

Prof. Rachel Wahl’s research on dialogue: Rachel’s work examines the role of dialogue and whether and how people learn from each other across deep divides, including whether and how politically opposed university students learn from each other during deliberative dialogue sessions.

“Engagements” Courses in CLAS: The “Engagements” courses focus on various themes, such as ethical engagement, empirical engagement, aesthetic engagement, and engaging difference. The “engaging difference” classes in particular are meant to foster critical thought across differences of experience, history, background, conviction, etc.

Center for Effective Lawmaking events (Batten): Along with the College Republicans and University Democrats, the Center has co-hosted both Republication and Democratic primary debates for US House, US Senate, and VA representative seats. A diverse set of political speakers visit the Batten School, and Batten School classes visit representatives in DC and Richmond on both sides of the proverbial aisle.

Planned Democracy Initiative “Religious Debates”: Professor Kathleen Flake (Religion) hosts annual student debates on questions of religion and democracy that provide large open fora for students to engage in complex political questions across partisan lines. These Democracy Initiative debates would be based on this model. Most recently, she organized one on the question of whether immigration policy is or is not a religious issue.

Student Efforts

UVA has many student groups dedicated to dialogue and debate, including but not limited to the following.

The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society: The Jefferson Society strives to provide UVA students a chance to engage in debate and discourse on a range of pertinent issues, honing their public speaking and literary skills and developing their ability to sustain an argument in debate. Additionally, the Society continues to provide the University and Charlottesville community with its prestigious Speakers Series, a collection of diverse and engaging presentations on a host of topics that offer students, faculty, and guests the opportunity to both learn from and engage with a variety of interesting figures from a wide array of backgrounds.

Sustained Dialogue: Sustained Dialogue (SD) groups of about 15 – 20 students meet weekly for dialogues about identity and issues that affect the UVA community. Groups are led by trained student moderators, and topics include but are not limited to the influence of race, gender, religion, disability, etc. SD also partners with other student and community organizations to co-host events and provide trained moderators to foster “dialogue” in the larger University community.

Washington Literary Society and Debating Union: The Society, affectionately referred to as “The Wash,” holds weekly literary presentations and debates driven by its membership. As a free speech and debating society, The Wash helps its members to develop a deep appreciation of the art of oratory through workshops, competitions, and social events.

The Alexander Hamilton Society: The Alexander Hamilton Society is dedicated to promoting constructive debate on basic principles and contemporary issues in foreign, economic, and national security policy. In pursuit of this goal, AHS sponsors open events and provides other opportunities for our members to flourish intellectually, professionally, and personally.

The Roosevelt Society: The Roosevelt Society is an all-inclusive political discourse organization aiming to provide an open and non-judgmental forum through which University students may actively learn from one another through weekly Socratic discussions themed to current events in American politics.

Parliamentary Debate Society at UVA: Top-ranked public university parliamentary debate team that competes in parliamentary style in APDA tournaments, mainly across the East Coast, and competes against a variety of schools from all over the country, including Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford, as well as globally.

PULSE at UVA: PULSE is a student-run organization at the University that holds a four-day dialogue retreat for first-through third-years every semester during fall and spring breaks. At PULSE, about fifty participants and ten trained moderators come together to discuss topics including religion, sexual orientation, gender, race, socioeconomic status, mental health, and social activism.

BRIDGE: BRIDGE (Bringing Race Into Dialogue with Group Engagement) is founded to host conferences and events designed to foster discussion about race and ethnicity, create a platform for sharing of experiences, and break down the barrier that talking about race is inherently racist. The aim is to encourage and equip participants of all backgrounds to understand and take ownership of the intersection between students, race, and the UVA culture.

Student Legal Forum: The organization seeks to create a forum to stimulate education, debate, and participation in important issues of general interest, including legal, political, economic, and foreign affairs matters. In doing this, the Student Legal Forum attempts to introduce notable persons to our academic community.

 ‘Common Grounds’ Documentary Film: A group of student interns at the UVA Center for Politics is making a documentary titled “Common Grounds.” This documentary interviews students from across the political spectrum and hopes to promote discourse and find commonalities. Most recently, the group brought together the conservative Young Americans for Freedom and progressive Young Democratic Socialists to paint Beta Bridge.

Law School Efforts

• Community Fellows: In 2017, UVA Law’s Office of Student Affairs launched the Community Fellows, a community-building program for first-year students that emphasizes working together across differences. The program is designed to cultivate engagement, senses of belonging, and conflict-resolution and interpersonal skills among 30 members of the 1L class who are diverse in every way, including politically and ideologically.

Common Law Grounds Club at UVA: The purpose of Common Law Grounds is to encourage discussion and debate among students and faculty across the ideological spectrum with the goal of identifying and articulating areas of agreement about core values and practices, isolating points of substantive disagreement while also looking for common ground, and fostering a culture of open and civil dialogue about legal and political issues.

‘Bridging Project’ Dinners: In 2019, the school launched a series of informal “4 Understanding” dinners as part of the Bridging Project, led by Professors Debbie Hellman and Charles Barzun, meant to bridge divides and foster understanding of differences.

UVA Law’s Federalist Society Chapter: UVA’s Federalist Society Chapter is nationally recognized. They host series of lectures, debates, and panels – often in collaboration with other groups on Grounds – that focus on bringing different ideological viewpoints to the table.


College Pulse, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and RealClearEducation released their first-ever College Free Speech rankings in December of 2020. The University of Virginia received a green light rating from FIRE and was ranked #6 among all schools (out of 55 total) in terms of climate for free speech on campus.