Ayyyeee… What’s Goodie Everyone. So I have some tea and it involves a person who sits on University of Virginia’s alumni board who has history of fighting against diversity programs at the college. This story was done by the New York Times.
Bert Ellis, is a loyal alumnus to the University of Virginia who has donated more than $10 million to his alma mater, and even co-owns a campus hangout, the Spot. He thinks the university is headed in the wrong direction. He objects to its emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion programs saying the university is already diverse. And he loathes the university’s recent portrayal of its founder, and his hero, Thomas Jefferson. Ellis co-founded a dissident alumni group, the Jefferson Council. And when Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, was elected governor of Virginia in 2021, largely on a pledge to overhaul education, Ellis saw an opening. “This is our only opportunity to change/reverse the path to Wokeness that has overtaken our entire university,” he wrote in a post for the Jefferson Council.
Ellis has two degrees and graduated from University of Virginia. He is 69 years old and is on the university’s board of trustees, appointed recently by Governor Youngkin. Ellis is part of a growing and forceful movement fighting campus programs that promote diversity, equity and inclusion, known as D.E.I. Politicians, activists and alumni who oppose the programs say they enforce groupthink, establish arbitrary diversity goals, lower standards and waste money that could go to scholarships. Lawmakers in 19 states have taken up legislation to limit or block university D.E.I. programs.
Virgina’s governor Glenn Youngkin has moved to change the direction of the state’s flagship university, in part by appointing Mr. Ellis to the board. A spokesman for the governor did not respond to questions about the administration’s plans for D.E.I. programs at the university but referred to a comment the governor made during a recent CNN Town Hall: “We have to celebrate excellence. We shouldn’t embrace equity at the expense of excellence.” Attacks on D.E.I. come at a crucial pivot point. The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the next few months against race-conscious affirmative action. At Virginia, where admissions is highly competitive, such a ruling could radically lower the number of Black students, who currently make up about 7 percent of undergraduates, an increase of more than 200 Black students since 2015.
Among other demographic groups on campus, white students make up the largest share, 52 percent. Asian Americans make up 18 percent, and Black Americans students comprise 6 percent of undergraduates. Depending on the reach of the court’s ruling, D.E.I. programs could become more crucial in attracting and retaining Black students.
At the University of Virginia, that effort is burdened by its founder’s complicated legacy: Jefferson envisioned an enlightened academic village, yet the campus was built and staffed in part by enslaved laborers. James E. Ryan, the university’s president, said he believes the majority of alumni feel the way he does that diversity is desirable and needed.“I haven’t heard anyone say we should have a community that is monolithic, unfair and unwelcoming,” he said in an interview.
After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the University of Virginia, like many schools, responded to the call for racial justice. Ryan appointed a task force on racial equity that recommended investing more in the existing D.E.I. program.
The goals were ambitious, and included endowments for the African American studies center and equity programs, as well as matching funds for donors to support student scholarships. The university wanted to double the number of professors from marginalized groups, increase the enrollment of students of color, and remove or reframe campus monuments, including contextualizing the university’s historical representation of Jefferson. The price tag was equally ambitious: nearly $1 billion.
While the plans have not yet been fully funded or implemented, the university points to progress. The share of Black undergraduates has increased to 7 percent of the undergraduate enrollment in 2022 from 6.7 percent in 2020. There are four new Black professors in the architecture program. Diversity efforts have become part of hiring and peer review evaluations, and departments are encouraged to train their workers on antiracism.
But somehow at the Jefferson Council, the equity task force proposal “struck many people as really extreme,” said James A. Bacon Jr., executive director of the group, which now claims more than 1,400 members. “It laid out a whole vision for, in their minds, redressing past inequities in bringing a more woke regime to U.Va.” And some were particularly concerned that the university wanted student enrollment to “better reflect” the state population, which is currently 20 percent Black. In 2021, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, issued a report attacking the cost and effectiveness of D.E.I. programs and targeting the University of Virginia for “D.E.I. bloat.”
The university, in conclusion, was tied for second in the nation, just behind the University of Michigan, in the number of D.E.I. employees, with 94. The actual number of D.E.I. employees is about 40, according to Kevin G. McDonald, the University of Virginia’s vice president for diversity. But as D.E.I. programs became a talking point on the right, the University of Virginia had become one of its prime exhibits.
On his first day in office, Governor Youngkin signed Executive Order Number One, banning the teaching of what he called “inherently divisive concepts,” including critical race theory, in public schools.
Two days later, he asked Edward Feulner, the founder of the Heritage Foundation, to lead a commission to screen new members for the state university boards. Dr. Feulner said in an interview that reining in D.E.I. was a priority. “You’re saying to yourself, ‘How many scholarships could the university give away instead of funding some nebulous department?’” Dr. Feulner said.
When the governor named Ellis, who heads the venture capital firm, Ellis Capital, as one of his first four board member appointments last year, the campus newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, started digging into his past. It reported that, when he was in charge of campus speakers during the 1970s, Ellis had helped host a debate titled “The Correlation Between Race and Intelligence,” featuring a prominent eugenics supporter, William Shockley, over the objection of some Black students. Another story revealed that, as a student, Ellis had turned down a request for a gay speaker. Ellis, responding in an interview, said that the newspaper “spun” its coverage to present him as a “racist, a homophobe and a eugenicist.” In fact, he says, Shockley debated Richard Goldsby, a Black biologist, who completely undermined his premise. “Goldsby absolutely slaughtered William Shockley in the debate,” Ellis said. Faculty and students were more alarmed over a recent campus incident.
In 2020, a student had hung a sign on her dorm room door that protested slavery, genocide and “KKKops” and included an expletive directed at the university. Her door faced out, onto The Lawn, a grassy court that was designed by Thomas Jefferson and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ellis appealed to Mr. Ryan, the president, to have the sign removed, which the university declined, citing the student’s free-speech rights. “I decided that, shoot, if the university wasn’t going to take it down, I’d take it down,” Ellis said. He said that he got as far as knocking on the student’s door. But after campus representatives asked him to desist, he left without carrying out his mission. The incident sparked two opposing reactions. The faculty senate voted in November 2022 to censure Ellis. The incident raised “the need to respect students ability to express themselves and also the safety of students,” Patricia A. Jennings, chairwoman of the senate, said. For Ellis and other alumni, the student’s protest, along with the racial equity task force, spurred the formation of the Jefferson Council, according to Bacon, the group’s executive director. In January 2023, the council funded another D.E.I. report, which concluded that the university employed 77 D.E.I. administrators, at a cost of $6.9 million. The university also disputes those findings.
The next month, Ellis’s appointment to the university board was narrowly confirmed by the General Assembly, despite student protests.
More conflict is likely in store due to the university plans to add context to a Jefferson statue in front of the university Rotunda. Ryan said that he envisions a QR code at the statue with additional information about Jefferson’s legacy. The language will likely include references to Jefferson’s slaveholding.
Still, Ryan pledged that “as long as I am president, the University of Virginia will not walk away from Thomas Jefferson.” The Jefferson Council is wary and has taken to monitoring campus tours. In a detailed document, it characterized the tours as providing an “indefensibly negative account of Jefferson.” Tour guides are “instructed to convey” that Jefferson fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemings, according to the document. “The history of U.Va. is presented as one long oppression narrative,” Bacon, of the Jefferson Council, said.
Credit: New York Times.
Editors Note: I felt that it was important to bring this story to the DCR audiences because at every turn when racism happens or occurs between an individual and or it’s institutions, I will report on it! This story was first reported on the New York Times.