Want a Woke Version of UVa History? Go on a Student-Guided Tour

by James A. Bacon

In June 2022 a University of Virginia alumnus took his college-bound daughter to visit Mr. Jefferson’s university. UVa was one of the young woman’s two top choices, and she looked forward to a tour of the Lawn and the Grounds. But disillusion set in quickly. At the orientation, a senior assistant dean welcomed prospective students with a four-to five-minute discourse on how UVa’s land had been stolen from the Monacan Indians and how the University was making amends for this historical wrong. And that was just the warm-up act.

Toward the end of an otherwise engaging tour of the Academical Village, a student guide launched into a “lengthy diatribe” recounting injustices ranging from the building of UVa on the backs of oppressed slaves to the infamous 2017 Unite the Right rally. The young woman was not impressed. If the recitation of left-wing grievances defined the zeitgeist of UVa today, this was not the place for her. She dropped UVa from her list of preferred colleges.

Sadly, the young woman’s experience was not an isolated one. Indeed, denigrating themes are woven through many, if not most, tours.  Arguing the need to “tell the whole truth” about Jefferson and UVa, as they put it, student guides frequently cast the University of Virginia in an exceedingly negative light.

Tour guides do give some credit to Jefferson, mainly for the undeniable architectural brilliance arrayed before the visitors, and also for his vision behind the founding of the University of Virginia. But positive statements usually come with caveats, and visitors finishing the tours gain little appreciation of Jefferson as the author of America’s founding principles, champion of individual liberties, and driving force behind ending the import of African slaves and circumscribing the expansion of slave states. He is remembered mainly as a slave holder. And the history of UVa is chronicled as a long struggle against White, male oppression.

This is not an accident.

The University Guide Service (UGS), a student-run organization supported by $3,800 in university funding in 2022 for training and recruiting, provides roughly 2,000 walking tours of the Lawn, Rotunda and Academical Village each year. Students are encouraged to personalize the tours with their own observations. But probationary guides, or “probies,” undergo a lengthy training course — weekly, three-hour classes over eight weeks — about the history of UVa. That training is laden with the rhetoric of the “social justice” movement.

The university administration has no issue with the guide presentations. To the contrary, as evidenced by the lengthy reference to Monacan Indians during the prospective-student orientation, administrators share the guides’ worldview. When Bacon’s Rebellion asked if the administration had any concerns about the heavy emphasis on slavery, racism and segregation in the guide presentations,  university spokeswoman Bethanie Glover responded as follows:

The University of Virginia hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors on Grounds annually. We place a premium on hospitality and ensuring that our visitors feel welcome. We strive to provide visitors with a memorable experience that meets or exceeds the purpose of their visit, and to offer a range of opportunities for them to learn more about the remarkable story of the University. Visitor programs highlight the academic rigor, collaborative research, vibrant student life, UVA’s contributions to service, athletic success, history and traditions, and the overall achievements of our broad community. We emphasize the University’s growth and progress over our 200+ years, often highlighting key changes and milestones including emphasizing the University’s founding mission to cultivate an educated and informed citizenry.

The UGuides have a long-standing tradition of providing student volunteer-led tours of the University along with a snapshot of their own personal experiences. The guides have been important ambassadors over the years and represent a point of pride for the University as a student-governed group….

While the content of the UGuides tours is student- organized and prepared, the University works closely with the guides to address any concerns shared by visitors, regardless of the nature of the concern.

Another interesting point to add here is that reviews for the UGuides tours are overwhelmingly positive, with 96% of July tour attendees leaving an “excellent” or “good” rating for the guides and their experience. The University has also had a record-breaking two years in applications, admitting some of the most talented and diverse classes in UVA history. The UGuides play a valuable role in our student recruitment efforts.

Glover’s description is largely at odds with the picture that The Jefferson Council, one of whose goals is to uphold the Jeffersonian tradition at UVa, has gleaned from the USG’s own training documents and from the testimony of numerous individuals who have taken the tours.  

You can find a detailed presentation of testimonies and training materials here.

What the guides learn. In the spring of 2022 probationary Guides were provided a training manual, entitled “University Guide Service Probationary Packet.” After introductory exhortations from current guides, the manual delved into the history of the organization and an overview of university programs, finances, and student life. The manual proceeded to give a succinct overview of the career of Thomas Jefferson, with particular attention to the design of the Academical Village (where the tours take place) and a much longer and more detailed history of slavery, racism, the Lost Cause, eugenics, memorialization, segregation, desegregation, and profiles of Black, Latinx, Queer, and female students and their struggles against racism and gender violence at UVa. Toward the end, the manual does take note of the university’s rich traditions, including Greek life and a brief treatment of the Honor Code, but then follows with an essay putting those traditions in the context of racism and sexism.

The problem [with traditional representations] is that it allows community members and visitors to gloss over topics such as slavery and the challenges of integration for both African Americans and women. Any emphasis placed on tradition is often reframed or downplayed so that it safely promotes old Southern values without addressing their possibly racist origins.

This view is reinforced in the eight training sessions, one of which was entitled, “Discussing Slavery and Jefferson Critically.” In that session, probies unpacked “intentionality” and how that impacts the framing of narratives. Examples included making distinctions between slave vs. enslaved, master vs. enslaver, monument vs. memorial, and the centering of slave owners vs. the experiences of the enslaved.

Another training session reviewed “the social construction of race,” drawing a direct line between Thomas Jefferson’s views on race, scientific racism, and eugenics. According to the program overview, “Jefferson is one of the first contributors to scientific racism in the United States.”

Suggested themes for probies to consider as they prepare their tours: resistance and activism, education and resistance, combatting institutions of White supremacy, memory and memorialization, and violence and community action.

Inevitably, this leftist framing of historical issues during the training has insinuated itself into many tours. Aside from Jefferson’s founding of the university, tour guides have little to say about UVa’s institutional growth, the leaders who guided that growth, or the contribution of UVa graduates to law, business, arts, and politics. As one guide explained in a tour, UVa is all about “telling the entire truth and not just the ones that make us look good.” The way  “telling the entire truth” often works out in practice amounts to excluding the good and dwelling mainly on the bad.

Why the Board of Visitors must act. As a student-run organization, the University Guides are granted considerable autonomy. That provides plausible cover for administrators who are perfectly comfortable with the guides’ leftist spin on history but don’t want to openly admit it. Yet the fact remains, the administration provides funding to the Guides, it cooperates with the organization when putting on programs for prospective students, and it integrates the student tours into its student recruitment.

Spokeswoman Glover reports 96% “good” and “excellent” ratings for the student tours. Perhaps that is a fair assessment. Conversely, perhaps the ratings represent a biased sample. I don’t know. The official picture does not jibe with the feedback that The Jefferson Council has received. Numerous alumni who revere UVa’s traditions and visitors who reject the oppression narrative of UVa history have responded viscerally and negatively to the tours. To them, the subliminal message is clear: students with leftist views will find UVa to be an accommodating place, conservative students will not.

This is consistent with the university’s broader policy. The University of Virginia has created ideological filters for hiring, firing and promotion by requiring job applicants and employees undergoing annual reviews to submit written statements expressing their commitment to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Similarly, it mandates diversity training, and high school students seeking admission to the university must fill out diversity statements of their own as part of the application process. The tours function — in fact, if not as part of a conscious strategy — as one more mechanism that weeds out conservative voices and reinforces a conformist, intellectual monoculture.

Addressing the issue will be ticklish. The Ryan administration has no intention of intervening, and it predictably will defend its inaction on the grounds (a) the tours are well received, and (b) that, regardless, self-governance must be respected. But through their interactions with “hundreds of thousands” of visitors every year, the student guides are forging a negative image of UVa. The Board has an obligation to ascertain if irreparable damage to the university’s reputation and recruitment is being done. 

Full disclosure: The author is vice president-communications of The Jefferson Council.