UVa Needs A Follow-Up Campus-Climate Survey

by James A. Bacon

In 2018, during the last months of the Teresa Sullivan presidency, the University of Virginia conducted an extensive survey — polling some 6,000 students, faculty and staff — to provide guidance for ongoing “institutional transformation.” In a key question, respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement that they felt “comfortable” with the “climate for diversity and inclusiveness.”

The mean score was a 4.0, which corresponded to an answer of “somewhat agree.” There was significant variation in the responses, however. Respondents identifying as Asian or Asian American felt the most comfortable at UVa. African-Americans felt the least comfortable, giving a mean score of 3.27, meaning that a majority disagreed with the statement with various degrees of intensity.

What do we make of that finding? Does the unhappy response of African-Americans support the view that UVa still suffered from systemic racism in 2018? Alternatively, does it reflect the fact that African-Americans were primed by the academic sub-culture to be acutely sensitive to what they perceived as slights, insults and injustices?

Four years ago, the UVa community was focused on social-justice issues generally, and making the university more diverse by admitting and hiring more under-represented minorities. UVa had already embarked upon building one of the most intensive Diversity, Equity & Inclusion bureaucracies of any university in the country. Proof of its commitment to DE&I is evidenced also by the survey itself, which explored respondents’ sense of “well being” and “belonging,” probed the incidence of microaggressions, and asked how “empowered” people felt in responding to incidents of discrimination and bias. 

Under President Jim Ryan, UVa has intensified its commitment to DE&I. As the preface to the study observes:

In the time since this survey was conducted, UVA has made important commitments related to diversity, equity and inclusion. In January 2020, the University adopted the Inclusive Excellence framework, a structure for self-study and organizational change. In June 2020, President Ryan convened the Racial Equity Task Force, which presented a set of goals for the university. UVA’s Board of Visitors endorsed those goals in September 2020.

Today many schools and colleges require job applicants to write “diversity statements” describing their commitment to DE&I. In the College of Arts & Sciences, employees’ diversity statements have been integrated into the annual review process. Meanwhile, employees across the university undergo DE&I training. History has been rewritten, buildings have been renamed, statues have been torn down, and a slave memorial has been erected.

It is fair to describe UVa today as an institution thoroughly dedicated to implementing DE&I and social justice principles.

Here’s the question: is it working?

Do African-Americans feel more comfortable at UVa… or less? Do they have a greater sense of belonging… or less? Do they perceive themselves as afflicted with more microaggressions… or fewer? Are African-Americans thriving at UVa… or are they miserable?

That would seem to be a fundamental question. Certainly it is a question that the Board of Visitors would want to answer.

The premise of the Ryan administration is that making African-Americans feel more welcome at UVa requires rooting out the racism endemic in the old system, and the only way to extirpate that racism is to make “anti-racism” (as defined by leftists) the university’s number-one, all-consuming preoccupation. If that premise is correct, then one would expect African-Americans to give higher scores in a survey given today.

But there is a different view: that the obsession with race feeds the sense of minority victimhood, grievance and alienation, and encourages minorities to be hyper-sensitive in their interactions with others. In this view, the predictable result is that Blacks will feel less welcome and experience less belonging — precisely the opposite of what President Ryan wants to achieve.

There is only one way to find out: conduct another survey.

It’s high time we find out whether the sweeping changes implemented by Ryan are having the desired effect.

Why hide the survey? It does not appear that the Ryan administration is particularly interested in knowing the answers. To the contrary, the administration buried the 2018 study. This is the explanation given in the preface for hiding the study for four years.

The release of the report was delayed by a number of factors, including the departures of President Sullivan, Provost Katsoulea and Vice Provost Archie Holmes. Most significantly, the emergence of COVID-19 soon after Provost Magill’s arrival in Fall 2019 required intensive focus on adapting UVA’s academic and service operations to the circumstances of a global pandemic.

This explanation is, to put it nicely, hokum. The Ryan administration’s top priority was achieving institutional transformation. The survey was designed to provide guidance for precisely that. Delaying its release for a few months might be understandable. But four years?

Adding to the sense that UVa’s top brass is dissimulating is the fact that the university refused to release the document when my colleague Walter Smith filed a Freedom of Information Act request late last year. If it had been a simple issue of the study having fallen between the cracks during a time of turnover in senior executives, UVa could have simply handed it over. But legal counsel resisted, citing the specious grounds that the survey results were protected proprietary scholarly research. Yes, UVa lawyers actually argued that a study ordered by the Board of Visitors for the purpose of guiding policy, and paid for by the university, was proprietary scholarly research that the public was not entitled to see.

When that laughable excuse became untenable, Team Ryan published the study — insisting that it had done so on its own accord. You can believe that, if you’re so inclined. My instinct is that there is something in the study that the UVa administration wanted to suppress, although it’s not clear from my reading of it what that would be.

Perhaps more plausibly, Ryan wants to avoid the accountability of having  snapshots of the university climate immediately before his accession to the presidency and four years later. Ideologically committed to “institutional transformation” regardless of results, he has nothing to gain from a new survey.

The Board of Visitors is a different matter entirely. In UVa’s system of governance, the Board’s top obligation is holding the president accountable.  Rector Whitt Clement should insist upon a four-year update to the 2018 survey. And if this board doesn’t require it, then a new board invigorated by the appointment of four new members this June 30 should demand it.