Back in Vogue at UVa: Viewpoint Diversity

Douglas Wetmore

by James A. Bacon

The University of Virginia leadership normally keeps its Board of Visitors meetings running on such a tightly scripted schedule that board members rarely get an opportunity to engage in free-wheeling discussion. But Rector Whitt Clement and President Jim Ryan made an exception Friday during the board’s June meeting: They set aside nearly an hour to talk about Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.

Board member Douglas Wetmore, a Richmond businessman appointed by Governor Glenn Youngkin, set the tone as soon as the discussion began. On paper the administration values “viewpoint diversity” along with demographic and other forms of diversity, he noted. But unlike the meticulous statistics it compiles on the racial and gender breakdown of students, faculty, and staff, he said, the university does not track viewpoint diversity at all.

“We want a wide range of competing ideas,” Wetmore said. “One hundred percent of statistics are related to race and gender. I haven’t seen one reflecting viewpoint diversity,” he said.

While a few board members suggested that viewpoint diversity was not a serious issue at UVa, the ensuing discussion revolved mainly around how to define viewpoint diversity, how much of such diversity was desirable, and how to measure it while respecting individuals’ right to privacy.

The Board conversation was unprecedented at UVa, where the DEI bureaucracy dedicated to advancing the interests of “marginalized” minorities has grown to 55 employees by the university’s own count.

DEI is reigning dogma at UVa, and it suffuses almost everything the uiversity does. DEI officials play a hand in crafting innumerable policies, initiatives and guidelines. Faculty and staff undergo DEI training. Students are steeped in DEI-driven instruction at orientation. The values and priorities arising from diversity, equity, and inclusion largely define the culture of UVa today.

Nationally, DEI has been questioned on many grounds, but the foremost is the threat it represents to free speech, free expression, and intellectual diversity. College administrators, conservatives allege, enforce intellectual conformity on cultural and social-justice issues by policing microaggressions, requiring applicants and employees to fill out diversity statements, tolerating social ostracism of speech code offenders, and, at many other campuses, disrupting speakers who express unpopular views.

Against this backdrop, UVA officials have taken steps to affirm their commitment to free speech. Last year the UVa Board of Visitors endorsed a statement speech written by a Ryan-appointed Committee on Free Expression and Free Inquiry. In March, the Board endorsed a statement by the Council of Presidents, comprised of Virginia university presidents, that proclaimed support not only for free speech but viewpoint diversity. Then with DEI exploding as a leading national issue, Ryan argued in a higher-ed trade publication last month that DEI was misunderstood. The “e” in DEI, equity, does not call for equal outcomes but equal opportunity, he contended. On the other hand, he did acknowledge that some DEI policies, such as diversity statements, could be viewed as coercive.

Just as the intellectual and political environment has begun shifting nationally, conservative members appointed by Governor Glenn Youngkin are poised to become a majority on the UVa Board of Visitors. A reappraisal of DEI under Virginia’s Republican administration, and Ryan got out front of the change in power while Democratic appointees still dominated the Board.

In a presentation to the Board (see the slide deck), Ryan said, “We will live by and promote the values at the heart of the University, including service, excellence, honor, diversity and inclusion, free speech and academic freedom. Also, we will both study and be accountable as an institution to address pressing societal challenges, including environmental sustainability, social mobility, educational inequities, and health disparities. ”

Ryan defined “diversity” as “the full spectrum of human attributes, perspectives, identities, backgrounds, and disciplines,” encompassing:

  • gender, race, ethnicity
  • religion
  • professional experience, and
  • political ideology and point of view.

He then presented a slide entitled, “Measuring Success: Diversity.”

The chart shows significant growth in for “minority” students (defined as Asian-American, Hispanic, Black, multiracial, and other) over 13 years.

As the old saying goes, you manage what you measure. While UVa has been highly attentive to its demographic profile — even maintaining a “diversity dashboard” online — it has developed no metrics for religious, professional- experience or viewpoint diversity. The overwhelming focus at UVa has been to expand racial/ethnic diversity even as, critics say, the rise of a leftist intellectual monoculture has taken hold. 

Wetmore said that the ideological sympathies of the faculty is highly unbalanced. “We have a 50/50 balance politically [in Virginia],” he said. “Why not try to achieve that?” When the discussion threatened to veer into other topics, he kept steering it back to that key question.

“I would love suggestions on how to track that without running afoul of legal prohibitions” on violations of privacy, Ryan responded. “I defer to legal counsel. What’s good way to get a sense of that?”

“We’d have to think carefully how to get that information,” said University Council Cliff Iler. “That’s something my office can wrestle with.”

Board member Bert Ellis (former president of the Jefferson Council) suggested that political donations could be a metric. The Jefferson Council has published data showing that UVa employees have donated to Democrats over Republicans in recent years by ratios of 10-to-1 to 20-to-1 in presidential elections.

Wetmore suggested that if privacy were an issue, UVa could poll people and ask them to respond voluntarily.

Steve Long, another Youngkin appointee, observed that UVa has strong social-science research capabilities. “We’ve got the Karsh Institute for Politics and the Center for Politics. Why can’t we work collaboratively to answer some of those questions? Challenge our leaders to come up with some models.”

Rector Whitt Clement, a Democratic appointee, lent his support for the idea. He said UVa should be known for “robust debate” between different points of view. “That’s what makes me want to achieve ideological balance.”

Building on Clement’s remark, Ellis said, UVa can’t have robust discussions and debates “if everyone agrees.” The university, he added, does not have a “sufficiently diverse faculty.”

While not endorsing Wetmore’s idea explicitly, Jim Murray, a Democratic appointee and former rector, expressed skepticism that DEI administrators were a worthwhile expenditure of taxpayer money. He proposed shrinking the DEI staff through attrition and reinvesting the funds into scholarships for first-time students. “If we went from 50 to 30 DEI administrators, we could create 200 full-ride scholarships.”

Not everyone shared the concern about ideological imbalance.

As a former member of the college Democrats executive board, Lillian Rojas, the newly appointed student representative, has led efforts under the auspices of the Karsh Institute for Democracy to build constructive dialogue with college Republicans. She said the political views of faculty members have never mattered during her time at UVa. “In a lot of our classes we’re being pushed to take the other point of view.”

Thomas DePasquale, a Democratic appointee, also questioned the need to identify the political views of faculty. “I’ve never heard a single student say, ‘I don’t feel like I can speak in class.'”

Susan E. Kirk, the faculty representative, expressed strong support for DEI values of trust, empathy and shared-life experiences. She also objected to the idea of polling faculty members about their political allegiances. “I recoil from asking personal political questions.”

Aside from the legal and ethical issues, many practical questions arise from the discussion. What should be measured — party affiliation? location on a left-right political spectrum? What about faculty who don’t fit easily on the spectrum? What’s the desirable balance? 50/50? If so, how does UVa get from the current 90%-to-10% partisan mix to 50/50 without causing massive disruption?

There are no simple answers. But then, the conversation is only beginning. The one thing that is very clear is that the tenor of the conversation about DEI is undergoing a seismic shift at UVa.

James A. Bacon is executive director of the Jefferson Council.

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Wahoo74
Wahoo74
9 months ago

Jim, I saw the entire BOV discussion via livestream. You provide an excellent and objective synopsis of the DEI debate. Doug Wetmore’s persistence was admirable, his dogged persistence to demand UVA analyze viewpoint diversity spot on.

Perhaps most amazing was former Rector Jim Murray’s suggestion that UVA fire a large portion of DEI bureaucrats and reallocate the money to scholarships. His ability to quantify this by saying his suggested expense reduction would create 200 new scholarships shows he’d come to the BOV meeting armed with facts and ready to question the orthodoxy.

The whole DEI Q&A was akin to the Roman Catholic Curia Cardinals walking into a Vatican meeting with the Pope and challenging him on the core principle of papal infallibility. This DEI discussion was long overdue.

To quote Sir Winston Churchill after the British victory over German General Irwin Rommel in 1942 after a string of defeats: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

We can only hope.

John Hunt, MD
John Hunt, MD
9 months ago

There is not much room for doubt that DEI is a collectivist concept, using collectivist methods, to expand collectivism. Collectivist entities are controlled by people who take power over them (usually the worst type of people). And of course, racism is a fully collectivist concept. DEI has certainly been effective at increasing racism. The people who promote it either want to increase racism (divide and conquer) or are simply intellectually and ethically dysfunctional.

Walter smith
Walter smith
8 months ago
Reply to  John Hunt, MD

Embrace the power of AND!

Diane94
Diane94
8 months ago

This article is really well-written and balanced. A great read.

James B Newman
James B Newman
8 months ago

Bravo as to Bert Ellis’s efforts to end the DEI mania. Bravo to those members on both sides of the “aisle” who recognize that DEI efforts at the University do not support free speech and work against society and a University’s efforts to support merit.
The opposition continues its efforts to support DEI as practiced here and will do anything to support that effort. The new members of the BOV can not arrive soon enough so DEI as practiced at the University will cease to exist and merit can return as the treasured goal

lorna gladstone
lorna gladstone
8 months ago

My husband and I both graduated from UVa many years ago. We have done well and had included the university in out=r wills but our wills have now changed and the university removed because of its ridiculous stance on diversity and other issues. We feel tis institution is no longer the one we knew. Instead everything is now going to Hillsdale College which ascribes to values more akin to ours.

Wahoo 76
Wahoo 76
8 months ago

I, too, watched the DEI discussion via the livestream. It was a good baby step toward tracking “viewpoint diversity” (and I commend Mr. Wetmore for initiating it), but I don’t think it will have much effect. Let’s look at how it might play out.

Let’s say this gets discussed more at the next two BOV meetings this year, as we know nothing will get done this year until Gov. Youngkin’s new BOV appointees are confirmed by the Va. Senate next year. Then the eight Youngkin appointees will have sway with the BOV, but not yet a majority. And we know that all of these eight might not agree on this issue. So, there will be another year of discussion while Provost Baucom (arrogant & the epitome of DEI) directs the University Counsel to stall as to the legality of monitoring viewpoint diversity and then MAYBE find a way to halfway implement this. We are now in early 2025 with Youngkin’s appointees being a BOV majority. Let’s say tracking is fully implemented and, lo and behold, it shows what we already know—that very liberal faculty outnumber conservative faculty by 10:1. So the BOV is faced with a decision—do they terminate DEI, as did UNC, or continue with it, as there really is no “in between” with Ryan there. So, the BOV has a quandary. Enter Jim Ryan.

Ryan is very smart, but also has been said to be shrewd and certainly politically savvy. He can feel which way the wind is blowing, as noted by his recent essay attempting to soften his approach to DEI. He knows that a critical juncture is coming in approx. two years and is preparing for it. He does not want to be fired, but neither does he wish to be twisting in the wind if and when his pet project DEI is terminated. So, I am betting he already has feelers out to return to the Ivy League in some cushy administrative position, perhaps even the presidency.

Back to the BOV. Their quandary (probably 2025) is to terminate (a) Ryan, (b) DEI or (c) both, as I do not think they will wish to continue with it They will not be able to force themselves to terminate Ryan just to eliminate DEI. They are too nice, which has been part of the problem. So, they will terminate DEI, and Ryan will leave to his cushy promotion which has already then been negotiated. As smart as Ryan is, he will have probably already departed.

So, both Ryan and DEI will be gone in 2025. This has to occur, as one cannot exist without the other. And UVA & its students will be the beneficiaries!

Just my opinion. 

Wahoo'74
Wahoo'74
8 months ago
Reply to  Wahoo 76

Agree with one perhaps optimistic disagreement. Former Rector Jim Murray explicitly said that the BOV should consider reducing the DEI bureaucracy and reallocate the expense savings to scholarships. He didn’t mince any words.

That was not just encouraging, it indicated to me that some of the Democrat holdovers also see the reverse racism of DEI. It is not about “equal outcome.” It is about payback, plain and simple.

walter smith
walter smith
8 months ago
Reply to  Wahoo 76

So we come back to…why did the BOV give him an unannounced, unscheduled from what his employment agreement already said for negotiating, 3 year extension to August 2028?
It couldn’t be that would allow the Governor succeeding Youngkin to have made 3 years of appointments, could it?

Seriously, the BOV has been so derelict. No oversight. No direction. Just rubberstamp the Great and Good One. sickening.

If Ryan had any honor, he should have refused it because of how it looked, but when all you care about is power…

Also, check out all the Deans since Teresa Sullivan. Is it possible that any one Dean has ever voted for someone not a Democrat (or Socialist for Bernie)? I sincerely doubt it.

Could that have any relationship to a faculty where political contributions run 90-95% to Dem causes?

Wahoo '78
Wahoo '78
8 months ago

I do wish there were more “mainstream” views among college faculty members of major universities like UVA. But you may be heartened to hear that the loudest applause during Larry Sabato’s presentation during the just-completed reunion weekend was when he expressed (strong) support for diversity of thought and speech.

MaryRuby
MaryRuby
8 months ago

I wonder if meritocracy is on its way out in our universities, including Virginia.

Midlo Mom
Midlo Mom
8 months ago

This Conversation is long overdue. I commend the BOV for beginning to address it. I am encouraged to learn that BOV members on both sides of the political aisle value diversity of thought. Since Mr. DePasquale doesn’t realize that an ideological monoculture inhibits many students’ ability speak out in class or enjoy robust debates on varied topics, he should view the Student Testimonials from the 2nd Annual TJC conference available at the Events tab of this website.

Ann Hunter McLean
Ann Hunter McLean
8 months ago

Thank you all for great comments. Agree that Jim Murray’s reduction of DEI staff is quite interesting, but also with Wahoo 76, and Walter Smith’s assessment. Thank you, Midlo Mom for pointing to the students testimonials from TJC’s 2nd Annual meeting. Students do NOT feel able to speak up; the 10:1 bias does exist. Ryan IS shrewd. The DEI agenda which has been pushed across our nation and the world is a test case for global communism, and what we need are sharp minds speaking up, and courage to act more nimbly, as many have pointed out here!

Patrick Ryan
Patrick Ryan
8 months ago

In the event the DEI opponents really wish to “rock the boat” it only takes three (3) board members to call a special meeting on a specific subject (Section 2.33 of Board By-laws).

A carefully crafted statement of meeting purpose, required information and possible action would greatly accelerate the DEI re-examination effort.

If this is a serious movement there is no need to drag it out as the board only meets 4 times a year.

This is probably the only avenue to shine a bright light on the subject.

Patrick Ryan
Patrick Ryan
8 months ago
Reply to  jimbacon1953

A powerful but seldom used by-law provision in many organizations.

If the anti-DEI proponents are really serious this is their immediate weapon.

Wahoo 76
Wahoo 76
8 months ago
Reply to  jimbacon1953

But bearing in mind that political capital must be spent wisely and sparingly, and realizing that timing is everything.

Patrick Ryan
Patrick Ryan
8 months ago
Reply to  Wahoo 76

Agreed but keep in mind the threat of a special meeting is a powerful motivator in itself.

Bruce L. Schall
Bruce L. Schall
8 months ago

A staff of 55 for the purpose of WOKE virtue signaling! So sad!

Clarity77
Clarity77
8 months ago

As Jefferson noted, “I prefer the dreams of the future to the history of the past.” And so I look forward to the day Ryan, Baucom and the rest of their Yale cabal pack their bags and return to New Haven to reunite with the Marxist useful idiots from whence they came. BTW, the “E” in DEI is in fact code word for socialism/communism/collectivism. Ryan’s earlier statement that it stood for “equal opportunity” and not “equal outcomes” is clearly a bald faced lie. Especially in light of the actual student experience under his administration when it comes to free speech or yes the opportunity to express a different viewpoint.