Did UVa Stack the Deck in Its Lawn Selection Process?

by James A. Bacon

It is deemed a great honor to be one of the 47 fourth-year students at the University of Virginia awarded a residence on the Lawn, Thomas Jefferson’s architectural masterpiece and World Heritage site. A committee of 60 students selects the residents from a pool of applicants, in theory based on their record of “unselfish service and achievement in their respective fields of activity and academics.”

But when the Cavalier Daily published an article yesterday providing the racial/ethnic background of the individuals who were offered a spot on the Lawn next year, it didn’t emphasize their accomplishments. Rather, drawing from data provided by Dean of Students Allen Groves, the article focused on the increased demographic “diversity” of the Lawn residents.

“Students of Color” received nearly 60% of the offers this year, compared to only 30% last year, reported the student-run newspaper.

The dramatic one-year shift in the racial/ethnic composition of Lawn residents raises the question of whether race and ethnicity has become an explicit but not-stated-publicly criteria for selection.

“Each year, we look for students who have exemplified selfless service to the University and the Charlottesville community,” Moriah Hendrick, chair of the selection committee told the Cavalier Daily. “There are far more qualified applicants each year than there are rooms on the Lawn, so we do our best to select a representative and engaged group — one that reflects the needs, interest and involvements of the greater University community.”

Consistent with a downward trend in applications the past few years, applications decreased from 221 last year to 189 this year. About one in four applicants was accepted. Reports the Cavalier Daily:

While last year only five Black students were offered Lawn rooms, this year 10 offers went to African American or African American students — making up 22 percent of total offers. Ten, or 21 percent of total offers, went to Asian or APA+ students, while last year only eight Asian American students were offered Lawn rooms. Five offers went to Latinx or Latinx+ students — the same number as last year — making up 10 percent of total offers.

Dean Groves did not release the racial/ethnic identity of the applicant pool — either that, or the Cavalier Daily did not report it. But we can find the racial/ethnic background of the undergraduate student population in the year 2019 on the university’s Diversity Dashboard. Among those students whose race/ethnicity could be identified (the overwhelming majority)….

The University of Virginia under President Jim Ryan has been fixated on the matter of racial/ethnic identity in matters ranging from admissions and financial aid to renaming buildings and laying bare the history of slavery at the university. Given the decisive change in the racial/ethnic makeup of Lawn residents this year, one might legitimately inquire if the administration has intervened in the selection process.

What’s different between this year and last? The George Floyd killing, the Black Lives Matter movement, and increased polarization of the country in matters of race. Closer to home, last fall there was an uproar at UVa over an “F— UVA” sign posted on the door of her Lawn room by a woman with an ethnic Pakistani background. All the while, the university has ramped up its commitment to “diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The University of Virginia website describing the process for selecting Lawn residents does not mention race or ethnicity explicitly, but the FAQ section does say that the Committee seeks to select a “diverse” community of peers.

Applications are reviewed by a 60-student selection committee. Thirty students represent “a diversity of experiences and perspectives.” The “diversity” is not intellectual diversity, it is racial/ethnic diversity. In addition to representatives from each of the university’s seven academic schools, the committee includes the following:

  • President of the Student Council
  • Chair of the Honor Committee
  • Chair of the University Judiciary Committee
  • An Asian Leaders Council representative
  • An Asian Student Union representative
  • A Black Student Alliance representative
  • A Black Presidents Council representative
  • The Global Student Council
  • The Latinx Student Alliance
  • The Middle Eastern Leadership Council
  • The Multicultural Greek Council
  • The Muslim Students Association
  • The National Pan-Hellenic Council
  • The Native American Student Union
  • The Queer Student Union
  • The Student Athlete Advisory Council
  • The Fourth Year Trustees
  • A transfer student representative
  • A First Generation Low Income Partnership representative

Another 30 committee members are selected by what the Office of the Dean of Students describes as a “random” process.

A small group of Fourth Year students will receive an email request to serve on the Lawn Selection Committee, and the first 30 to accept this responsibility will receive training to read and rank applications.

Who selects that “small group”? Apparently, the selection is determined by the Lawn Selection Process Organizing Committee, which is chaired by the Dean of Students, none other than Allen Groves. Among other members of that select-the-selectors committee, one has an explicitly racial qualification: the Dean of the Office of African-American Affairs.

In other words the Ryan administration stacks the deck of the selection committee (a) with representatives of multicultural student groups, and (b) a students from a pool hand-picked by the Dean of Students’ office. While race/ethnicity may not be an explicit criteria for selection, “diversity” is. Next year white students will be significantly under-represented on the Lawn compared to their percentage of the student body. It is not unreasonable for members of the University community to ask if the dean engaged in a form of reverse racism by orchestrating a reduction in the percentage of white students and increase the

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