UVa, Wokeness, and Rooms on the Lawn

by James A. Bacon

Once upon a time in a galaxy far far way, it was considered a great honor among 4th-year University of Virginia students to be selected for residence on the Lawn — the architectural heart of the university designed by Thomas Jefferson and now designated a world heritage site. The accommodations  were less than luxurious — most memorably, the 47 rooms were not equipped with their own bathrooms. There were offsetting advantages. The rooms had fireplaces, and the University provided a plentiful supply of wood. But living on the Lawn was mainly about status. It conferred recognition of a student’s accomplishments in his or her first three years.

Something is happening at UVa, and I don’t fully understand it. The prestige of a Lawn residency is declining. The trend was made visible last year when a 4th-year woman posted a prominent sign on her door emblazoned with the words “F— UVA” and in subsequent statements dismissing founder Thomas Jefferson as a slave-holder and a rapist. As evidenced by supporting signage on other doors, other Lawn residents shared her sentiments.

But the decline in prestige long precedes that particular expression of animus toward the university granting the honor, and it precedes even the reign of wokeness under current President Jim Ryan. As shown in the table above, submitted by UVa in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by UVa alumnus and Bacon’s Rebellion contributor Walter Smith, applications to live on the Lawn have fallen steadily and precipitously — 37% — over the past five years.

I have not studied this issue closely, so any conclusions I state here are preliminary and tentative. But I would suggest that the decline in interest in Lawn residency reflects the larger downgrading of the university’s Jeffersonian legacy and its traditions by the administration, faculty and, downstream, of the students. In not merely apologizing for but wallowing in UVa’s slave-holding and segregationist past, UVa leaders have effectively de-legitimized their own institution. When the university expunges the names of ancient benefactors from buildings, and when controversies arise over the racist implications of everything from the famed serpentine walls (which supposedly hid slaves from view) to the curves in the athletic V-sabre logo (which evoke the serpentine walls), the administration has systematically devalued the university’s history and traditions while doing nothing to uphold them.

Ironically, even as the administration, faculty and activist students bemoan the racism of UVa’s past, 60% of the students offered the prestigious slots this year were “students of color,” in the university’s nomenclature. There is a strong possibility that the Lawn selection process has been biased to favor non-whites. For instance, 22% of all offers extended this year went to African-American students, who comprise only 7% of the student body. Whites, comprising 59% of the student body, received only 40% of the offers.

The University does not provide the racial background of the applicants. But I would conjecture that the decline in applications has been most pronounced among whites, who have concluded, not without foundation, that the odds are stacked against them. Many whites at UVa are retreating from the oppressive wokeness around them.

Traditions do need to evolve with the times, as does our understanding of the past. UVa’s connection to slavery and segregation were long swept under the rug. It is right to exume painful history so that we may learn from it. But UVa is throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Acknowledging the past has morphed into cultural cleansing. UVa is distinctive among U.S. public universities in the richness of its heritage and traditions. Without them, UVa is just another state university competing on the basis of its wokeness.

That is not a formula for greatness. The declining interest in living on the Lawn is silent witness to the self destruction of a once-renowned institution.

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14 responses to “UVa, Wokeness, and Rooms on the Lawn”

  1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    My brother had a room as a grad student in the 70s and I can tell you his undergrad performance was hardly stellar. He was certainly no shining star. Seems like the concept of prestige historically being associated with living in one of those rooms may be a bit overblown.

  2. Rob Austin Avatar
    Rob Austin

    So much to unpack here. One possibility is that in UVa’s overbearing wokeness culture, some white kids don’t want to live on the Lawn for fear of being called out as implicitly agreeing with the idea of meritocracy. On the other hand, the apparent bias in the assignment of Lawn rooms to non-whites might well be the woke crowd’s declaration that it is hell-bent to overturn anything having to do with UVa’s past.

  3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Or it could be that modern students have been spoiled and are more and more reluctant to live in a dorm room that does not have ready access to a shower and toilet. To say nothing of having tourists walking into your room unannounced.

  4. Matt Adams Avatar
    Matt Adams

    Perhaps people just don’t appreciate the heritage that they could participate in.

    Some people can feel connection with locations of historical significance, others do not and cannot.

    I could spend day after day and year after year exploring Williamsburg, there is just an aura about it for me. I’ve had that appreciation for a good number of historical sights and museums. However, it’s not my wife’s cup of tea and therefore she reluctantly indulges me only on rare occasions.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Those rooms sound like a form of self-isolation from other more social forms of housing to me. I think most young folks would actually want to be around others rather than off to their own solitary cubby hole. Maybe just me.

  6. StarboardLift Avatar

    Unless we survey UVA students to know, this is all speculative. One dimension of Lawn life not mentioned is that there is a closeness that develops, the Lawn acts as a bit of an incubator for the best of the best. One needn’t share a room to become close to neighbors during morning coffee, frisbee, late night chat, and by sharing those restrooms.

    It could be a question of air conditioning. After 3 years in Charlottesville, students have had experience with high temps in Aug/Sept and April/May.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Perhaps. But I think times have changed in terms of “status” and “exclusiveness”. My bet is that if a UVA student had a choice between the lawn and a Frat, it would no no contest.

  7. Publius Avatar

    Curious. How many of the commenters so far went to UVA?
    I don’t think grad students were eligible for the Lawn – I thought they could apply for the Range.
    In the 1970s, it was a big deal to be on the Lawn.
    Truly a unique living situation…to be on Jefferson’s original vision of an “academical village.”
    I think Jim Bacon’s initial conclusions probably have a lot of merit.
    I guess after the Woke get rid of TJ’s statue, they’ll raze the Lawn and the Rotunda…built by slaves!

    1. StarboardLift Avatar

      I did.

      1. Publius Avatar

        And your comment seemed fair. You are right though, my observation was a pretty broad group of people who shared that experience became pretty good friends.

  8. Kevin W. Holt Avatar
    Kevin W. Holt

    I lived in 7 West Lawn during the 1992-1993 academic year. The lack of air conditioning and proximity to bathrooms was a minor inconvenience compared to the great honor of living in the historic heart of the University. It was very social and hardly isolated. I was in close proximity to 53 classmates, faculty and their families in the Pavilions and grad students on the Range, not to mention everything and everyone always on the Lawn. Friends constantly stopped in, wanting to hang out there. Mr. Mead’s fourth year seminar met on the Lawn, including in my room on occasion. The Rosenblooms next door in Pavilion III took me in during the blizzard that hit during spring break preventing my return home and we enjoyed the ACC Tournament. So many wonderful experiences. My year on the Lawn was one of the great highlights of my life.

  9. Merchantseamen Avatar

    VT is has descended into the snake pit like UVA. Guv. Knothead attacked VMI and has damn near “broke” them. His own alumni. No different than what they are doing to the national academies in woking them. It is all about “turning” them and when told will turn on the populace. Remember they hate us and they will kill us when they get the chance. I remember the 60’s. that was a bee sting compared to what is going on today. I remember seeing a photo taken at Woodstock. Some guy was selling ??. Young long hair. He had a small sign at the corner of his bench/table hand written that said F%#K Communism. Remember Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner in his own way and was celebrated. Those people in power left or right want to kill us. Al those clowns were bearing false witness at the Capitol yesterday.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      At least we know for certain that no part of Virginia Tech was constructed using slave labor , no slaves ever worked at the school, and the school never owned a single slave.

      1. Merchantseamen Avatar

        Hey it is 2021. Slavery has been over for a lot of years. Check your history books. We fought a war to end it. Some 600,000 Americans Black and White died from the conflagration.

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