by James A. Bacon
Whitt Clement, rector of the University of Virginia, gave a brief defense of Thomas Jefferson and his legacy at the Board of Visitors meeting Friday.
“We are a University founded by Thomas Jefferson, and honoring his legacy and his contributions to our nation has, and will always be, an indelible part of what it means to live, learn and work here,” Clement said. “That is the policy and the position of this institution and it will not change under our leadership or that of President [Jim] Ryan or his team.”
Clement alluded to a statement made by Ryan two years ago regarding the decision to contextualize the Jefferson statue on the Rotunda plaza: “I do not believe the statue should be removed, nor would I ever approve such an effort. As long as I am president, the University of Virginia will not walk away from Thomas Jefferson.”
Seated next to Clement in the board meeting, Ryan did not expand upon the rector’s remarks in any way. But UVA Today, the mouthpiece of the administration, published an article summarizing Clement’s speech and repeated Ryan’s two-year-old quote. No other board members or university officials were given an opportunity to comment.
Clement had been under pressure to speak after the editorial board of the Cavalier Daily student newspaper had advocated disavowing any connection to Jefferson in a recent editorial as well as revelations that the Student Guides were injecting anti-Jefferson views into their tours of the university grounds. Increasingly, members of the University community define Jefferson as a slave-holding rapist. Despite calls to respond to the rhetoric and uphold Jefferson’s legacy, Ryan remained silent.
“Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard from dozens of you, from people very loyal and dedicated to UVa wanting to know where we stand,” Clement said. Ryan’s statement from two years ago, he said, “I think reflects this board as well.”
“We should understand the life of our founder and represent it fully,” Clement said. Jefferson made tremendous contributions to “this institution, to the nation, and really to humankind.” But, he added, “He was a human with a lot of contradictions. We shouldn’t shy away from these truths. Jefferson’s legacy is not so fragile that it cannot withstand inspection.”
Rather than dwelling on the past, Clement suggested that the Board focus its attention on “modern questions that need to be resolved.”
Comparing the University to the Ports of Virginia and the Washington Dulles International Airport as the greatest public assets in the commonwealth of Virginia, Clement suggested that the Board should be asking, “What does it take for us to be truly the number one public institution in the United States? What more do we need to do? What kind of investments do we need to make?”
Update: Bert Ellis, president of The Jefferson Council and member of the Board of Visitors, had the following reaction to Clement’s remarks: “I’m happy with his message and how he delivered it.”
Bacon’s bottom line: I find it remarkable that Clement was the one to stand up for Jefferson and that he had to rely upon a two-year-old statement from Ryan to state the administration’s position — even as the president sat silently beside him.
Inquiring alumni want to know: What does Ryan have to say today?
Pledging not to remove the statue is thin gruel. Does Ryan promise not to do so because he truly admires the man, for all his flaws, and sees him as a worthy exemplar of UVa’s ideals? Or has he bought into the anti-Jeffersonian narrative but made the pragmatic judgment that severing the Jefferson connection would cause a firestorm among alumni, parents, and politicians that would compromise his tenure as president?
As a common college campus saying goes, “Silence is violence.”
The continued silence of President Ryan certainly does violence to Jefferson’s standing at UVa.