Will Clement Leave His Mark as UVa Rector?

Whittington W. “Whitt” Clement

by James A. Bacon

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors will have some fresh blood tomorrow. Whittington W. Clement will assume leadership as rector July 1, and he will be joined by three new members appointed by Governor Ralph Northam earlier this month on the 19-person board.

The question is this: Will anything change? Will the Board reassert its control over an institution that is run by a self-aggrandizing senior staff with no regard to the interests of students and parents who pay most of the bills? Will it act to protect Thomas Jefferson’s legacy and UVa’s proud tradition of intellectual diversity and free inquiry? Or will the Board acquiesce to President Jim Ryan’s ambition to create a monochromatically leftist faculty while tolerating a student culture of dreary ideological conformity?

I don’t know Clement well, but I can say confidently that he is a dedicated public servant who will do his honest best to balance the many conflicting demands confronting the Board of Visitors.

Clement is a good Democrat, as one would have to be to secure appointment by a Democratic governor, but he comes from the establishment, pro-business wing of the party. Having served two terms in the House of Delegates and as Secretary of Transportation under Governor Mark Warner, he now heads the state government relations practice group for Hunton Andrews Kurth. A life-long Virginian and a “double Hoo” (with undergraduate and law school degrees), he has a strong sense of the university’s values and traditions even if, as many believe, those values and traditions must be reconciled with the imperatives of social and racial justice.

As the functional equivalent of the “chairman of the board.” Clement will play a leading rule in guiding the university into the future over the next two years. As chairman, he will provide the only effective oversight of the institution’s ambitious “CEO,” President James Ryan, whose personal vision may or may not align with that of the Virginia public. Here are some issues that Clement will have to wrestle with.

Should the University of Virginia strive to become one of the top-rated universities in the country or should it aim to be to be a great public university? Entertaining national aspirations means raising as much money as possible to spend on new buildings, programs and initiatives geared to increasing institutional status and prestige. Affordability and access for Virginians are secondary considerations. Middle-class Virginians don’t want UVa to become Harvard-on-the-Rivanna. They want an institution dedicated to excellence, but one they can aspire to attend and afford when they get there.

How should UVa compete in the higher-education marketplace? Can UVa become a vibrant center of learning and free inquiry by hiring faculty and administrators who all share the same left-of-center world view? Should UVa become an institution where only the fine-points of left-wing orthodoxy are debated? Or should it seek ideological diversity and a multiplicity of viewpoints where a vibrant exchange of ideas takes place?

Will UVa support freedom of speech and expression for all, or only for those with favored points of view? The Board of Visitors may have formally affirmed its commitment to free speech and free expression, but the grim reality is that many students — especially those with conservative views — do not feel free to speak freely. Many faculty members demand ideological conformity. Twitter Outrage Mobs create a hostile environment for conservatives. The overwhelming majority of officially sanctioned events feature left-of-center participants. Is that the way to path to intellectual excellence?

How can UVa become more “inclusive”? In a post-George Floyd world in which literally every institution of higher learning is seeking to recruit more Black and Hispanic faculty members, staff, and students — creating a situation where demand far outstrips supply — how can UVa stand out? Under Ryan, UVa has adopted a policy of self-flagellation for its past. Has that approach endeared the university to “people of color” or do Blacks, in particular, feel more alienated and resentful than ever toward the university whose founder was a “slave-holding rapist”? Can UVa compete in the marketplace for minority talent by pursuing the same strategy — with less prestige and fewer resources — than Harvard, Yale, Duke or Stanford? Conversely, could UVa make itself more attractive in a crowded marketplace by touting the excitement that arises from intellectual diversity and a vibrant exchange of ideas?

UVa’s governing body is no different from those of other universities — the president controls board agendas and parcels out self-serving information, while boards duly rubber stamp nearly all decisions. Board members must be more assertive. They must ask more questions. They must refuse to accept vague, evasive answers. They must be willing to ruffle feathers. In sum, they must  exercise genuine oversight. That is Clement’s greatest challenge of all.

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11 responses to “Will Clement Leave His Mark as UVa Rector?”

  1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I hope Clement approaches his role with a more open mind than is reflected in this post.

    1. Publius Avatar

      DHS – have you done any investigating of the culture at UVA to conclude that Jim’s criticism has not been made with an open mind? I have been hearing from so many random sources of a really negative, intolerant culture. Anecdotal…but varied enough to make me think the criticism needs to be heard. Is there an acceptable amount of intolerance for views not from the Left? Or should UVA have a culture where all views can be expressed…you know, like Jefferson wanted?

      I am pessimistic that Whitt Clement will make a difference, but I would love to be surprised. And, unlike some commenters here, if he actually did a good job against my expectations, I would say so!

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        Appointments to BoV / Rector posts at UVa are for sale to the highest bidder so long as the money was spent on Democrats. Typical Northam. Typical Virginia.

        Just once I’d like to see a person who owns a small plumbing shop who makes no political donations get appointed to a key role. Or a teacher. Or a nurse.


  2. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
    Baconator with extra cheese

    More Wypipo? UVA seemingly doesn’t care about diversity.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I doubt seriously that Clement shares much if any of the hard core right’s heart and soul and thus, only a matter of time before he is roundly condemned as “woke” and worse.

    I look back at Dragan and come away thinking “wrecking ball” rather than innovator and collaborator.

    I don’t think it is in Conservatives to work collaborative for change any more.

    It’s more or less a “warrior” mindset and liberals and leftists are the enemy and compromise is surrender.

    It has no real optimistic vision for the future – just vanquish the evil-doers..demonize the leader, .and if you can’t succeed at that – just burn it all down!

    It’s not like UVA has not been a fairly liberal institution – for decades, yet Conservatives will no longer accept that and they do pitiful things like hang their hopes on a guy like Clements who is more than likely just what the doctor (Northam) ordered. When Clements is eventually outed , we will, return to our standard hate and discontent narrative, no doubt.

  4. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    You do not get any more “establishment Democrat” than the head of a major Richmond Main Street law firm’s lobbying practice. Boats Shall Not Be Rocked. If you believe in Ripper’s “Plantation Virginia,” this is the overseer in the north 40…and I’ve always respected Whitt! But you can throw a rock from his offices and hit the Main Street Dominion Energy building, where previous Rector Tom Ferrell held court….(Clement’s firm actually represents the other investor owned power company, Appalachian.)

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Almost as bad as Tommy Norment, eh?

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        Not quite as bad as Norment. Norment and Saslaw are in a class of their own.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      Sounds like another holdover of the Byrd Machine in the same vein as Ralph Northam.

      Took in over a quarter million in campaign donations from 1996 – 2001. Big money from health care and banking. Typical Virginia flim flam with funds transferred from here and there.

      Hard to see how he put Danville on a good path. Danville – ranked one of the 50 most miserable cities in America in 2019 (Business Insider) and the second most dangerous city in Virginia (crime statistics) in 2019. The population of Danville has dropped by more than 13,000 from 1990 – 2019 (from 53,000 to 40,000).

      Just another connected guy from the Plantation Elite.

      I guess you have to be a lawyer or a hedge fund manager to qualify for the BoV or Rector at UVa.

      Where are the liberals asking why there are no working class people on the BoV? No policemen, nurses, teachers, etc. Just establishment lawyers and financial manipulators.

      1. Baconator with extra cheese Avatar
        Baconator with extra cheese

        But Northam initiated the One Virginia project where there should be equitable representation in government decisions and boards. When will the Board of Visitors bring in those with intellectual disabilities or people with no college education to sit on these boards? I mean don’t they deserve a say in a tax payer supported university? I mean isn’t equity and diversity a strength?

    3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Clement did “grow up” and practice law in Southside (Danville) before moving to Richmond for the big bucks. But, Steve, is correct–he is establishment, with a stint as president of the Virginia Bar Association under his belt. He is a nice guy, by the way.

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