Author Archives: jimbacon1953

Look What UVA Is Hiding

by James A. Bacon

Acting on behalf of The Jefferson Council, Walter Smith has filed a complaint in Henrico County against the University of Virginia, seeking a remedy for its refusal to supply documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Smith serves in a volunteer capacity as chair of the Council’s research committee.

The suit alleges 14 instances in which the University’s FOIA staff improperly denied emails and other documents to the Council. Smith’s FOIA requests asked for documents that would shed light on the inner workings of the University’s administrative decision-making process.

The cases highlighted in the complaint illustrate two main themes. First, UVA’s FOIA lawyers have stretched the presidential “working papers” exemption beyond its original intent of protecting the university president’s personal deliberations. Second, the lawyers did not apply privacy protections to Bert Ellis, a Board of Visitors member who was widely perceived as a threat to the university status quo.

“UVa’s FOIA process seems designed to delay and discourage and deny inquiries that may be embarrassing to the Ryan administration,” said Smith. “The administration says it’s all for open inquiry. These are matters of legitimate interest to the public. It seems hypocritical to hide so much.” Continue reading

What Does UVA Need in a University President?

by James A. Bacon

For anyone following governance issues at the University of Virginia, Bill Ackman’s Twitter broadside against Harvard’s now dethroned president Claudine Gay and its governing board is must reading. Ackman, the hedge-fund manager-turned-activist who spearheaded Gay’s overthrow, identifies serious systemic problems at Harvard, from its ponderous DEI bureaucracy to a tuition policy that prices out the middle class.

Every one of the pathologies he describes at Harvard plays out at UVA (although, one can argue, in diluted form). Little of this is new to readers of the Jefferson Council blog, for we have been documenting the problems for two years now. But Ackman raises one point that we have not considered: What qualifications should a governing board look for in a university president?

The question might seem academic, but UVa President Jim Ryan is surely feeling nervous these days. As dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education before ascending to his position at UVA, he is a product of the same hyper-progressive Harvard culture as Gay. And Liz Magill, the University of Pennsylvania president who was sacked after her abysmal testimony before Congress, was Ryan’s hand-picked provost for UVa before she moved on to the Ivy League. Ryan is less politically tone deaf, to be sure, he is popular among UVA students and faculty, and he has said all the right things regarding free speech and institutional neutrality. No one in authority has publicly called for his resignation. Even the Jefferson Council, as critical as it has been of UVA under Ryan’s tenure, has taken no position on whether he should stay or go.

Nevertheless, it is worth asking the question, in light of the presidential defenestrations at Harvard and Penn, what should an elite university look for in a president? Continue reading

Nooses, Masks and Double Standards

by James A. Bacon

In the fall of 2022 a furtive figure was caught on videotape draping a noose around the Homer statue on the grounds of the University of Virginia. The university administration immediately declared the act a hate crime. University police launched an investigation, enlisting the FBI to help in the search for the perpetrator. A $10,000 award was offered to anyone who could provide more information.

“The facts available indicate that this was an act intended to intimidate members of this community,” said President Jim Ryan in a letter to the community. “A noose is a recognizable and well-known symbol of violence, most closely associated with the racially motivated lynchings of African Americans.”

A noose hung from a tree branch is indeed a recognizable symbol of lynching. The meaning when hung around the neck of a statue of an ancient Greek poet, however, was not self-evident (as we noted at the time). Indeed, when the offender was discovered, it turned out he hadn’t been targeting African Americans at all. Irate at how the Homer statue placed a hand on the head of a naked youth, the Albemarle County man declared that it “glorified pedophilia.” Local authorities charged him with intimidation anyway.

That was then.

Photo credit:

The day after Hamas’ October 7 terrorist assault on Israel, the Students for Justice in Palestine at UVA issued a statement issued a declaring that “colonized people” had the right to resist oppression “by whatever means they deem necessary.” A poster promoting the October 12 march showed a Hamas bulldozer plowing through an Israeli security fence. “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” the poster said. Later that month, SJP held two rallies on the Grounds. Marchers waved Palestinian flags and chanted, “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea.” Some insisted that the slogan was just a call for solidarity with oppressed Palestinians, but many Jews interpreted it as advocating the eradication of the Israeli state and, in the context of the Hamas massacres, the slaughter of the Jewish population.
Continue reading

A Hostile Environment for Jews

by James A. Bacon

Matan Goldstein is a rarity at the University of Virginia — a Jewish student unafraid to openly defend Israel in its war with Hamas and oppose Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a pro-Palestinian group that praised Hamas’ October 7 terror attacks on Israeli citizens. The Israeli student has appeared on local talk radio and published an op-ed in the local newspaper. He wears a kippah, openly identifying himself as a Jew, and he was one of the two students who waved an Israeli flag on the steps of the Rotunda during an SJP rally. 

Goldstein, who was drawn to UVa by its classics program, was surprised upon coming to Charlottesville by the prevalence of antisemitism and the impotent handwringing of the UVa administration in dealing with it. University officials have declined to criticize the eliminationist rhetoric of pro-Palestinian students and faculty. Instead, the University has created a religious diversity task force to investigate discrimination against Jews… and Muslims… and other religions. Two of the eleven task-force members had signed a faculty letter faulting Ryan for his failure to sufficiently acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinians.

Goldstein’s account is echoed by other members of UVa’s Jewish community contacted by The Jefferson Council, although he was the only one willing to speak on the record. A law school student spoke off the record, while parents, alumni, a professor and a rabbi conveyed the sentiments of many other Jewish students whom I was unable to contact for first-hand accounts. Jewish students are so reticent to speak publicly that the signatories to a letter in The Cavalier Daily identified themselves only as “a group of Jewish students.”

During his first-year orientation in September, Goldstein participated in a group discussion in which students told others about themselves. He mentioned that he was Israeli. A classmate, a student from Egypt, spoke up. He said he was angry at the Jewish state and the Israeli Defense Force. He thought Abdul Gamal Nasser, an Egyptian dictator who sought to destroy Israel in the Six Day War, was a hero. “He said we could never be friends.” Continue reading

How Unbiased Is UVa’s Religious-Diversity Task Force?

by James A. Bacon

The University of Virginia task forced assigned the job of ensuring that UVa is “welcoming” to all religions includes two faculty members who signed an open letter criticizing UVa President Jim Ryan for failing after the October 7 terrorist rampage afflicted upon Israel to acknowledge the suffering of the Palestinian people.

Ryan denounced Hamas terrorism but declined to take sides in the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Jews. The task force’s aim, according to the announcement in UVa Today, “will be to understand how Jewish and Muslim students, faculty and staff, as well as those of other religious backgrounds, experience life on Grounds.”

“We want every student, faculty member and staff member to understand that they are a vital part of this place and how profoundly they enrich our common life as we take on that fundamental work of the University,” Ryan said.

The task force is headed by College of Arts & Sciences Dean Christa Acampora. She will be supported by 10 faculty, staff, students, and other members of the UVa community. Christians, Muslims and Jews are all represented. A challenge will be keeping the focus on how Jewish and Muslim students are experiencing UVa without getting infected by the emotional debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that gave rise to the task force. Continue reading

Rubber Stamp Governance

by James A. Bacon

Earlier this month the Jefferson Council noted that the Board of Visitors had virtually no input into decision-making for setting the University of Virginia’s tuition & fees in 2025 and 2026. The three-month process, orchestrated by senior administrators, presented a carefully curated set of statistics and allowed no opportunity for board members to engage in substantive discussion.

Based on my observation of the public meetings I attended, it struck me that Board oversight was a sham, and that the Board’s vote in December to approve 3.0% tuition increases rubber-stamped a decision made by the Ryan administration. But I muted my conclusions in writing because I still had questions about how the process worked.

I submitted several questions to Chief Communications Officer Brian Coy. The administration’s response removes any lingering doubts. Continue reading

How “Diverse” Is the Religious Diversity Task Force?

by James A. Bacon

A newly appointed Task Force on Religious Diversity and Belonging will have the mission of ensuring that UVA is “welcoming to students, faculty and staff across the full spectrum of religions and cultures,” the Ryan administration said Wednesday.

“The group will explore opportunities for meaningful engagement across religious differences and examine the scope of UVA’s educational offerings related to religious cultures and histories, including histories of religious discrimination,” the announcement stated.

“We want every student, faculty member and staff member to understand that they are a vital part of this place and how profoundly they enrich our common life as we take on that fundamental work of the University,” Provost Ian Baucom said.

The initiative comes against a backdrop of the Hamas-Israel war and increasing tension between Muslim and Jewish students nationally. The Students for Justice in Palestine at UVa praised the Hamas Oct. 7 terror attacks on Israel as justified resistance to Israeli oppression. Although there have been no documented instances of physical violence against Jews on the Grounds beyond some pushing and shoving, many Jewish students say they have been subjected to ethnic slurs that would never be tolerated for protected minorities, and they are afraid to speak out about the conflict. Continue reading

The Asymmetrical Application of Free-Speech Principles

by James A. Bacon

Clifford S. Asness, founder of AQR Capital Management, did a masterful job of distilling the free-speech debate on college campuses to its essence. Though he had in mind the disastrous testimony of the three Ivy League presidents last week regarding Palestinians and Jews, his Wall Street Journal op-ed describes the dilemma at the University of Virginia as well.

Alumni donors like me don’t object to free speech. What we can’t abide is the extremely asymmetrical application of free-speech principles. For years these schools, [the University of Pennsylvania] prominently included, have actively suppressed ideas disagreeable to the progressive worldview of their administrations, faculties and hard-core student activists. Now that those groups are talking about wiping Israel off the map, these college presidents are wrapping themselves in the First Amendment. …

Unacceptable is the current status quo of free speech for those chanting slogans that amount to “death to the Jews” but not for those committing alleged microaggressions against the politically favored.

That is precisely the problem I have with the UVa administration.

The day after Hamas terrorists slaughtered thousands of defenseless Israeli citizens and abducted hundreds more, the Students for Justice in Palestine at UVA were free to say the following (my bold): Continue reading

Introducing the “TJC Forum”

by James A. Bacon

If you want to engage with other Wahoos to talk about sports, there are websites for that. If you want to connect with Wahoo parents, there are social media platforms for that. If you want to discuss governance at the University of Virginia, however, there is no forum. Some of the most contentious issues of our times — free speech, diversity, the cost of higher education, mental illness, safety, social justice — play out at UVa. We at the Jefferson Council are committed to provide a venue, this blog, where those controversies can be discussed in a civil, mutually respectful manner.

Yes, we have passionate views on those pressing issues, and so do some of our officers and supporters. But we don’t think we have a monopoly on the truth. Our vision is for UVa to be the most exciting university in America to learn, teach and create knowledge. Turning vision into reality requires a diversity of viewpoints and a willingness of students, faculty, staff, and alumni to challenge one another without fear of retribution. As proponents of free speech and open dialogue, we try to live up to our own ideals, not just by tolerating different views, but fostering debate that subjects our own views to critical analysis.

Accordingly, we are introducing the TJC Forum. Continue reading

UVa Eyes Potential Cost Savings

by James A. Bacon

The Ryan administration defended its record of cost cutting Friday during a presentation to the Board of Visitors and pointed to an ongoing Operational Efficiency and Effectiveness Study as a source of savings in the future.

The study, which commenced in September, has focused on five objectives, Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis told the Board:

  •  Maximize scalability and efficiency
  • Unlock the power of technology
  • Reduce manual work
  • Minimize duplication
  • Align activities to mission

So far, said Davis, three major themes have emerged: people and organization; optimization and scale; and technology as an enabler. Over the next six months, in the words of her presentation slide deck, the study will conduct a “deeper examination of opportunities warranting further analysis.” She will report back to the Board in June. Continue reading