by Walter Smith
The Washington Post recently featured an opinion piece, “Why the University of Virginia is becoming a battleground for speech,” which portrayed members of The Jefferson Council as a group of old white guys desiring to preserve their hegemony of white privilege while skirting around the actual facts of the free-speech debate. In this rebuttal, I aim to fill in the missing facts and context.
Let me say by way of preface, that we appreciate the “hit piece” from The Washington Post. If you are drawing fire, you must be over the target. This opinion piece affirms that our efforts are being noticed.
The author, Peter Galuszka, set the scene for his diatribe by recounting the recent speech by former Vice President Mike Pence: “On April 12, hundreds of well-scrubbed, mostly White young people thunderously applauded former vice president Mike Pence as he espoused ‘free speech’ at the University of Virginia.”
That paragraph and the following two were largely true. Pence did say, “I am a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican in that order.” He did say he had accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior (which is an orthodox statement among people who are evangelical Christians). He did criticize The Cavalier Daily student newspaper for its editorial which wished to deny him the right to speak at the 851-seat Old Cabell Hall auditorium. Young Americans for Freedom at UVA did organize the event, which is part of a national speaking tour for Mike Pence. Perhaps it is accurate to have said the purpose was to push a possible presidential bid in 2024.
The tone of the opinion piece then changes markedly. Asserting that another purpose of Pence’s speech was “to help voters forget the chaos and crudity of former president Donald Trump,” he commences his onslaught of vituperation and deception. He refers to The Jefferson Council (TJC), of which I am a founding director, as a “small group of right-wing alumni” who are “distressed at what they say they believe is censorship by left-wingers and unfair questionings of the traditional history of Thomas Jefferson, the school’s founder.”
Here are the four “pillars” of The Jefferson Council:
- Promote an academic environment based on open dialogue throughout the University.
- Preserve the Jefferson Legacy.
- Preserve the appearance of the Lawn as a UNESCO World Heritage site. And
- Support and reinvigorate the Honor System.
Does it make us “right wing” to support free speech in an academic environment and defend the reputation — at the university he founded, no less — of Thomas Jefferson as a giant in world history?
Mr. Galuszka then continues his inaccurate portrayal with a mixture of facts, fallacy and events strung together to support his unstated opinion that TJC is a reactionary group of White racists using the bogus claim about a lack of free speech atmosphere to bring back the “good old days” in which only preppy, White men attended the university.
He quotes TJC President Bert Ellis accurately but briefly and then describes him as “a wealthy television-station mogul based in Atlanta.” Ellis does have two degrees from UVa. I am not sure what becoming a “wealthy television-station mogul” has to do with the story, other than to paint the group as a haven of powerful, rich White men. More to the point, Ellis’ wealth says nothing about the validity of his opinions.
Mr. Galuszka next states that TJC is an example of how UVa has become a political football in recent years. UVa has inspired an alumni rebellion because it has changed so dramatically in the past years. TJC’s efforts are aimed at restoring primacy to a true educational institution. Galuszka adds nothing to his case by stringing together a sequence of events having nothing to do with his thesis – UVa was once a school for White preppy men, the school now admits women and non-Whites, Michael Mann was involved in a massive FOIA dispute, former President Teresa Sullivan was removed and reinstated, Rolling Stone published the gang rape confabulation, and the Unite the Right rally of “hard-right fascists” occurred in Charlottesville.
Then on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, Galuszka says the admission of foreign students and non-Whites “seems threatening” to the “Old Guard” — by which infers from the context of his column, he means other privileged White men like the TJC members who are “critical of the university’s attempts to extend its diversity outreach.”
This perhaps is the most vicious untruth in the piece. Jefferson Council members are entirely comfortable with the goal of achieving more demographic diversity in the student body. Our reservations focus on the means by which that goal is to be accomplished. As we have documented thoroughly, UVa’s version of “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion” is thoroughly infused with the rhetoric of Critical Race Theory, which divides the country into White oppressors and non-White victims and posits that the only remedy for past discrimination is reverse discrimination. Under the banner of “Inclusive Excellence,” UVa compels employees to undergo CRT-inspired “training,” requires job applicants to write statements describing their commitment to “diversity, equity and inclusion,” and incorporates adherence to DEI in faculty peer-reviews.
These requirements are (1) not academic, (2) destructive of academic freedom, (3) compelled speech, and (4) most likely unconstitutional infringements of free speech. The Jefferson Council is fighting to return the University to its educational mission of preserving the rights of all and promoting vigorous, open dialogue – teaching how to think, not what to think.
The rest of the column is the distorted product of a fevered mind. Galuszka picks up the narrative with Ellis discovering Hira Azher’s F*** UVA sign on her Lawn door and insisting that she take it down. “If Ellis is such a strong supporter of free speech and worried about lefties dominating discussion,” Galuszka asked, “why did he try to suppress Azher’s freedom to express herself?” In recounting why Ellis took umbrage, he offers this one-sentence description:
Ellis said that Ryan’s decision was “horse hockey” and that Azher’s use of profanity was “low rent.”
But by omitting the “rest of the story,” Galuszka makes Ellis sound like an inarticulate bigot, which, given the tenor of the larger piece, was probably his aim.
The fact is, the Lawn is part of Jefferson’s original design for his “academical village.” The Lawn and the Rotunda are a UNESCO World Heritage site, visited by not just prospective students, but people from all over the world. There are only 47 Lawn rooms. Living on the Lawn in a Lawn room is a distinct honor. It should not be out of the question to ask that someone accorded such an honor should act like an adult with rights and responsibilities. Ms. Azher posted her sign partly in reaction to UVa not accommodating her Lawn room modification request due to a physical injury. To modify the Lawn room was not a “reasonable accommodation,” and Azher was offered alternative housing arrangements for the period of her disability. But, in an effort to infer that Ms. Azher was a victim of bigotry, Galuszka tells us she is Pakistani-American, an excellent scholar and athlete, and a medical volunteer.
No one at TJC disputes her right to have opinions critical of UVa. What we do not approve is her manner of expressing her opinion and UVa’s handling of the controversy. The sign did violate University rules. President Jim Ryan hid behind an opinion of University Counsel, which argued that, because UVA had not enforced the rules on signs previously, it could not demand that she take down her sign.
Then Galuszka says he “pressed” Ellis on which school groups or individuals were suppressing free speech. Ellis mentioned the controversial The Cavalier Daily editorial that called for dis-inviting Pence as well as a CD editorial written by a self-described lesbian who thought Pence would make worse “an already difficult anti-gay atmosphere at the school.”
The idea of UVa as “anti-gay” flies in the face of climate-survey polling that shows a large majority of gays at UVa feeling that their sexuality is respected, not to mention the existence of significant resources (which you can view here) that supports the LGBTQ+ community.
This is really the problem with the entire opinion piece. Mr. Galuszka did not attend UVa and he is not in current contact with students and faculty, so he does not know what is actually happening on “the Grounds.” Rather, drawing upon his college experiences from the early ’70s in Boston, he suggests that free speech is alive and well at UVa because the Mike Pence speech went off without incident.
But here is the reality. UVA has adopted and is requiring political positions of its faculty, violating academic freedom and the law. Through its hiring practices, the UVa faculty is becoming increasingly monolithic in its ideological and partisan views. Ninety-five percent of UVa employee political contributions go to Democrats, versus 5% to Republicans and Libertarians. UVa students ranked 156th out of 159 schools in a Foundation for Individual Rights in Education survey in feeling free to express their opinions.
This free speech problem is not unique to UVA. Alumni across the country are awakening to the toxic atmospheres at their alma maters and are forming organizations similar to TJC. These groups have formed the Alumni Free Speech Alliance as a clearinghouse to help other schools protect free speech and restore their schools’ educational missions. The Jefferson Council is not the problem. We are the cavalry riding to the rescue of higher education. True free speech is an American founding principle – as Jefferson said of his desire for UVA – “for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead.”
Note: Peter Galuszka responds that he has had considerable contact with the University of Virginia. His daughter and first cousin both graduated from UVa, and he has done a weekly talk show on news and economics at WTJU, the school’s radio station. He comes into contact with students on a regular basis.