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.