How Open Is “Political Dialogue” at UVA?

by James A. Bacon

There is widespread concern among critics of higher education in America that elite universities are squelching free speech and open dialogue in the pursuit of social justice. There is ample evidence that such is exactly the case. But institutions vary, and what occurs at Harvard or Yale may or may not be indicative of reality at the University of Virginia. It is incumbent upon us at the Jefferson Council to draw conclusions about the state of free speech and civil discourse at UVA based on what is happening at UVA, not what we read of horrors elsewhere.

Fortunately, in the age of the Internet, the partisan and ideological proclivities of college faculty are more transparent than ever — even if administrators are not. Professors leave abundant evidence in their writings and in digital recordings. Insofar as we have time, we will profile cases we come across.

We first became interested in Rachel L. Wahl, an associate professor of education at UVA who is affiliated with the Karsh Institute for Democracy, because she was one of eleven appointees to the Religious Diversity Task Force charged with addressing religious bias on the Grounds. If a purpose of the task force is to facilitate dialogue between hostile religious groups, appointing Wahl was likely a good idea. Not only does she encourage respectful dialogue, she researches what it takes to achieve it.

Ten months ago Wahl made an online presentation during the College Civic Learning for an Engaged Democracy Forum, which was captured in the video above. Based upon her research and experience teaching a seminar at UVA, she described what she learned. She keeps her personal political leanings to herself, and she treats students’ perspectives, liberal and conservative alike, as legitimate. She does not try to change students’ views. But she is pleased if they come away with a deeper understanding of “the other side” and an appreciation of them as people.

Wahl’s approach strikes me as an excellent model for UVA to adopt. It is encouraging to know that there is a place for her at the University. I don’t know how representative she is of the UVA faculty, but there are other professors like her. That gives me hope that creating truly open dialogue at UVA is possible. What it means to conduct free and open dialogue in an environment in which certain ideas are never taught, however, is a very different question, and one that must be grappled with.

Her prefatory remarks in the video are worth hearing because they lay out the philosophical divisions within academe very nicely. Not everyone believes, as Wahl apparently does, that open dialogue and civil discourse are good things.

It is axiomatic among members of the Jefferson Council that the purpose of education is to teach students how to think, not what to think, and that freedom of expression is fundamental. But the left has developed an elaborate rationale for viewing civil discourse as just another tool for perpetuating oppression. Wahl explains:

A lot of people worry that these kinds of conversations can do a lot of harm, that they actually end up squelching dissent by insisting on a kind of civility in which unpleasant truths cannot be spoken and a certain mode of engagement that is often expected in dialogue and deliberation actually undermines resistance and the tools of people who have been historically oppressed. So the concern then is that deliberation and dialogue maintain the status quo or an even deeper oppression by making sure that people only say things that sound nice and polite, that even though the idea is that we’re just going to listen to the better argument, what we come to think of as the best argument tends to be defined by dominant groups by their own experiences, and what they’re likely to recognize as common sense because it mirrors their own experience delegitimizes other forms of engaging in democracy such as activism, and that it narrows democratic participation, and that it fails to challenge systems of power because it focuses on inter-personal relationships. … It’s a way to shore up consensus so if the students who happen to sound more like their teachers are considered more rational, then dominant groups will be able to legitimize their perpetuation of their ideology to the detriment of the historically marginalized….

She is working on a book on the role of dialogue in democracy that tries to take these concerns seriously, Wahl continued. “In what ways might dialogue cause harm and when and for what and in what ways might it strengthen movements for social justice?”

As part of her research, in 2017 she conducted interviews with 51 students (who apparently engaged in dialogue sessions of some sort, although that’s not clear from the video), and interviewed as many of them as she could again in 2020. Only a few changed their minds on political issues as a result of the conversations, but many came away with the idea at least that those with whom they disagreed politically weren’t idiots or fascists or evil people.

In the video Wahl makes a fascinating observation that turns the critical theory paradigm on its head, although she does not draw the conclusion from it that I do.

Critical theory examines power structures, and in analyzing campus dynamics, it assumes that the power structures that exist nationally are replicated on a smaller scale in universities. But that’s not true. Progressive intellectuals, who chafe at their powerlessness on a national level, hold considerable power in academe (although they complain it’s not enough). Drawing from the dialogues that she witnessed, Wahl said:

Now, did elite students dominate these conversations? This question is complicated because there are many different forms of privilege and status, so the students who tended to be from the University of Pennsylvania, they tended to be older graduate students, and the conservative students tended to be from Cairn, which is a smaller college, and they tended to be younger undergraduates. The students from Cairn … did express that they were intimidated by the students at Penn and they did express that they were more open to what they had to say because they viewed them as having more education or a more elite form of education. In that way the elite students did have an advantage because they were viewed as more rational because they were able to be more articulate because they had more practice expressing and defending their views … and they had more markers of status.

One might inquire whether the differences found in Wahl’s inter-collegiate dialogues are replicated in universities where faculties, staff, and graduate students are overwhelmingly liberal/leftist, have more practice than impressionable undergraduates in articulating their views, and enjoy more “markers of status.”

While some courses at UVA might be reminiscent of Maoist re-education camps, most are not. But can the absence of overt leftist bias still result in a kinder, gentler form of indoctrination? If students are never exposed to conservative/libertarian/independent ideas that would give them the conceptual armature to contest what they’re hearing from leftist professors and graduate students, what does “open dialogue” even mean?

The manner in which partisan and ideological bias at UVA works its effect on students is more complex and nuanced than commonly understood. We’re still learning how it works, and we’re likely to modify our views as we know more. We’ll do our best to give UVA alumni a balanced appraisal.

James A. Bacon is executive director of the Jefferson Council. The views expressed here are his own.

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6 months ago

“It is axiomatic among members of the Jefferson Council that the purpose of education is to teach students how to think, not what to think, and that freedom of expression is fundamental.”
In addition to how to think, education should create an unbiased knowledge base to support critical thinking including practical things like math, economics, history, science, civics, etc. And education should include topics that enrich the human experience (art, literature, etc.).
Benjamin Franklin: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

6 months ago

Geez louise! This article brings to mind a bizarre interaction I experienced in a conversation immediately after a Miller Center presentation back in 2018 on the subject of the C’ville Unite the Right incident one year later. The panel of “experts” did not have one single conservative representative. In short it was a typical leftist “civil” monologue as is typical of UVA sponsored seminars that I have now become accustomed to, no real dialogue or reasoned debate.

So after the seminar I went up to the podium and I questioned the moderator, Nicole Hemmer, at the time the leftist Miller Center “expert” on both that incident and the so called “far Right”, as to why the stark absence of an alternative conservative viewpoint on the panel. I am still stunned today as to recalling her response, “oh no need as I am the expert on the Right. I know and study them well and therefore I provide that viewpoint.” I replied, “well then why did I not hear you voice it? As one who enjoys reasoned debate and the pursuit of truth thereby, your seminar was a complete waste of time and UVA money.” Hemmer soon became a geographic success as she went on to Columbia with her bizarro mindset. Thank God!

So now we are presented in this article with a glowing account of Rachel Wahl who IMO, with my eyes wide open and not shut, is a Nicole Hemmer type only this time at Karsh instead of the Miller Center. Instead of an “expert” on the Right, now we have an “expert” on the subject of dialogue who has been appointed to Ryan’s Religious Diversity Task Force.

Folks, after a careful reading of this article and the video, let us not kid ourselves, a la “Nicole Hemmer” style, her use of DEI terminology, blatant smears as to Governor Youngkin, citing of the basis of her work on a certain Carlos Ferrer at Auburn U, combined with the usual euphemisms and leftist dog whistles should cause the reader concern as to what is really lurking in her mindset as to approaching the subject of dialogue. To go deeper, one must recognize in her the framework in which she makes her statements in which unproven and distorted “truths” that can only come out of a leftist groupthink monoculture slip off her lips as though they are self evident and having a proven researched basis. Easily promulgated as no counter research is even presented as is the way of the left in academia. As a clear example I googled Carlos Ferrer, apparently her stated ideological mentor, and the first academic writing that he authored and pops up is an analysis of “people of faith” who he concludes are not thereby able to be “resilent.” Blatant and current academic leftist crap which she apparently adheres to.

It has been noted as to leftists that they will repeat their own lies to the point to which they come to believe their own lies.

So please Mr. Bacon, eyes wide open and not shut. As an aside, this very topic of Rachel Wahl and examination of her would be an excellent introductory topic on the anticipated launch of the TJC Forum. A dissection of your article and her video would be enlightening.

6 months ago
Reply to  James Bacon

Thank you Jim for inviting me to submit a post for your review as to publishing on the TJC Forum. It bears noting that I am writing this reply to you on MLK Day. It is no secret that the left has now discarded MLK and of course the Christian faith he espoused to form their own God-less woke religion. In a post seminar question that I posed to another member of Ryan’s Religious Diversity Task Force, a person of color, I asked who she would deem the most iconic civil rights leader in American history. Of course she rapidly identified the Rev. MLK. So I then asked what happened to his iconic statement as to “judge not a man by the color of his skin but rather the content of his character.” Wide eyed she flashed back and blurted out, “but we must have social justice!” And of course, in concert with empathy, another foundational requirement of the woke dogma.

My point is we on our side as UVA alumni must come to terms with and be very aware of the mindset of the left and the woke verbage they would employ in any potential dialogue. We are in a culture war in which we who were educated(not indoctrinated) and who value reason and dialogue in attaining truth are in fact dealing with a cult(yes, a cult) of woke religion in which foundational doctrines such as social justice and empathy are not to be questioned whether it be monologue or dialogue. Going deeper, underlying all of their woke religion is guilt and they will seek to introduce what I would term “hooks” into the dialogue in order to ensnare and project their guilt. We live in a very unhealthy codependent society in which the two sides are operating largely in an unconscious way. IMO there is no hope on the left that they will ever achieve intellectual health free from their guilt. They have purposefully hard wired guilt into their psyche over years.

I have attended seminars at UVA wherein the invited speaker denies the very existence of hope. Given such denial of even hope on their side it is we on our side who are then charged with the task of effecting health in this codependent madness. And it must start first within each of us as to recognizing the actual mindset of the left and then rooting out within ourselves any vestige of unhealthiness that they are then very adept at exploiting.

It is quite clear that the anxiety, depression and various other mental health issues that afflict current UVA students is directly attributable to this woke religion and its sick use of guilt. We must do our part and I thank you for your tireless efforts at the TJC in bringing this all to the light.

I am very much looking forward to your upcoming event featuring Jonathan Haidt. He is the only academic I am aware of who has delved deeply into this mess at universities. Unfortunately I am tied up with multiple obligations in Florida and cannot attend. I am hoping his presentation can be in some way accessed remotely and from what he relates we can further gain a heathy awareness of what we are facing and how to address it.

In the meantime I will work to submit your requested post for your review. As a guiding principle and objective, it must be clear, concise and to the point based only in calm and measured fact based reason. As Jefferson would require. I hope it will earn better than a gentleman’s C grade.


5 months ago
Reply to  James Bacon

A response to convey to Ms. Wahl. I have been overly busy and away from the TJC website for the past 6 days and now back. I cannot retrieve at present the Carlos Ferrer/Auburn U. reference but it is vivid in my memory. I do now see a professor Carlos Ferrer Pantoya at Auburn but regardless perhaps it could be an AI thing.

Moving on though I am even more concerned as I went back to the video posted on TJC in which you do speak quite favorably of a certain Paulo Friere who I then pull up a characterization of him that follows.

Freire contributed a philosophy of education which blended classical approaches stemming from Plato and modern Marxistpost-Marxist, and anti-colonialist thinkers.

Ms. Wahl this is even more concerning to me that a professor at UVA would use the work of such an individual to form a basis for your work as to Educating for Democracy.

If you have paid attention to the real world outside the proverbial ivory tower you would find that in human history that real democracy has in no way been consistent with a Marxist as thought leader.

I have a busy day as usual and am already behind at this point so would you do me a favor and relate to me as to your Educating for Democracy any web page reference to either Jefferson or the other Founding Fathers who happened to create the most enduring democracy mankind has ever witnessed?

4 months ago
Reply to  Clarity77

Ten days now and no response from Rachel Wahl? Hmmmm…

4 months ago
Reply to  James Bacon

Ten days now and no response from Rachel Wahl???