Our University: Things That Change and Things That Stay the Same
Kenneth G. Elzinga
Robert C. Taylor Professor of Economics
Jefferson Council @ Alumni Hall
April 5, 2022
Professors are always willing to profess, but I do not intend to profess about economics. I plan to talk about Mr. Jefferson’s University, where I have had the privilege to be employed since the fall of 1967. UVA has had nine presidents. I have served under six of them. I am told that I have taught more students than any other faculty member in the history of the school: approaching 50,000. I also am married to a UVA alumna. My wife Terry is a graduate of the Architecture School. The seven letters on her Virginia license plate spell: ROTUNDA.
When I reflect on my experience at UVA, I hold in tension a deep sense of admiration for the University and, at the same time, I can restrain my enthusiasm for characteristics of the school that have surfaced during my time on the faculty.
I want to be very clear: I am grateful to the University for a paycheck; for the freedom to do research on topics that I wanted to explore; to teach a subject I find difficult but interesting; to connect with students, some of whom have become friends; even to have the extraordinary privilege of living on the Lawn for ten years.
To use a Biblical illusion, my cup runneth over.
Let me recount five changes I have observed that I admire about this institution. I could add more if I had time.
The most notable change during my time is the coed character of the College of Arts and Sciences. When I joined the faculty, all the students in the College were men. When the College admitted women (the year was 1970), it did not do so in token fashion. In two years, the College was thoroughly integrated, male, and female.
The move to coeducation was accomplished with remarkable skill by the administration. One result has been to improve the academic stature and classroom rigor of the College. And like every professor I know in the College, I am pleased that a “son of the University” now can be someone’s daughter.
Another change is the skin color of the University community. When I arrived, students at Mr. Jefferson’s University were almost all white. I do not know the statistics, but I suspect the undergraduate population is now almost 25% non-white. The number of African American and students of Asian background is evident to anyone attending classes or walking on the grounds.
Another change is the quality of the students and the academic intensity of some majors. UVA always has attracted some exceptionally talented students. It still does – but there are more of them. No offense to those who graduated a while back, but the College of Arts and Sciences is a better school than it was in the late 1960’s.
Economics, where I hang my hat, is now the largest major in the College. Undergraduate students who do well in my department know more economics than students who earned a master’s degree in the 1960s and 70s.
Another change – and this is number four on my list – is athletics at UVA. I am not a big sports fan, but I am struck by the change in the status of Virginia sports teams during my time on the faculty — where a national championship in at least one sport is expected every year.
Let me add a footnote to number four: having taught hundreds of varsity athletes, I have never had a coach in any sport ask me to do anything academically unethical. Athletics at the University of Virginia is like what President Reagan called a “shining city on a hill” – especially compared to the scurrilous conduct of athletics in a town South of here called Chapel Hill.
Number five, the last I shall mention, is the increasing interest in religious observance among students, especially evangelical Christianity, but also Judaism and recently Islam. Within the Christian sphere, UVA was a wasteland in the late 1960s. Today the best estimate I have is that there are about 1400 undergraduate students involved in Christian fellowships on grounds, either attending large group meetings or in small group Bible studies. When I arrived, there was one group of Christian students that I knew of – and it was so small it could meet around a table.
You will never read about this spiritual awakening in a UVA or Alumni Association publication because I suspect it is a source of embarrassment to some members of the faculty and administration. But I for one am glad that it is no longer peculiar to be spiritually observant at UVA.
Now I want to switch gears – and move from changes I have admired to changes that trouble me.
When the Apostle John was exiled on the Isle of Patmos, he wrote the Book of Revelation, the last book in the Christian Bible. In that book, John explains why Jesus praised the church in Ephesus for having many wonderful qualities. But after these words of praise, the Apostle John records these ominous and memorable words: “This one thing I hold against you.”
Because I have such affection for the University, I am reminded of these words – because there are some characteristics of UVA that “I hold against her.”
I shall mention four and save the most troubling to the last.
The first one is curmudgeon – and I will simply beg your indulgence here. I witnessed first-hand the decline and fall of the coat and tie tradition. When I was a young pup on the faculty, all students in the College wore a coat and tie.
When I first arrived and was shelving books in my Rouss Hall basement office, a young man showed up at the door. He was wearing a sport coat, an oxford cloth shirt, a rep tie, and cordovan shoes. Being new to town, I assumed I was being called on by an insurance salesman. But it was a student: Jim Wootton was his name.
The demise of the coat and tie tradition has its regrettable side. I continue to believe in the theory that if you constrain the circulation of blood and air in the vicinity of a man’s neck, he will behave in a more civilized manner. I have never read of a mugger wearing a coat and tie — and very few bank robbers do. I have never taught a class at UVA without wearing a coat and tie.
Here’s number two on my list of “this I hold against you.” I am sad to see the weakening of the honor system. It is not as vital as it once was. Honor is a student run system and if it is not what it once was, the primary blame lies with the students.
Many of my students claim they would never lie, cheat, or steal – and I believe them. But they tell me that they would not report another student who did.
Some tell me reporting an honor violation would be tattling. Who admires a snitch? Some tell me they believe reporting an honor violation would be like imposing their values upon someone else.
One wonders if someone punched them in the face, they would not report this to the authorities lest this involve imposing their values upon someone who enjoyed punching people in the face.
Regarding honor, I am not talking about demise. Most of us on the faculty still take a student’s word. Because I have taught so many students, I often encounter students who are ill and want to be excused from a test. They assure me that they will get a note from their doctor or Student Health. And I remind them that they need not do this at the University of Virginia – because I take a student’s word. Often a student will look at me in this situation and it is as if a light goes on: “oh, this is what the honor system means. I am considered trustworthy – worthy of a professor’s trust.”
For number three, let me start with an impression of the University that has been a constant during my time on the faculty: the University of Virginia attracts students who want to be at UVA. This sentiment goes back to the eloquent and memorable words of James Hay, Jr.:
“Remembering the purple shadows of the lawn, the majesty of the colonnades, and the dream of your youth, you may say in reverence and thankfulness: I have worn the honors of Honor, I graduated from Virginia.”
Note the word “thankfulness” in what Mr. Hay wrote. He expressed gratitude for being able to attend the University.
Several years ago, a young woman who was a student at UVA blogged about her time on grounds and continued to blog about her life. This is how she revised Mr. Hay’s words in describing her graduation [in 2011]. She wrote:
“Thank you, God, for giving me the chance to go to UVA. For allowing me to wear the honors of honor.”
Fast forward to where some Lawn residents put “F— UVA” on their Lawn Room doors. Even on the door of the Gus Blagden Room, the so-called “good guy” room.
To have such coarse language coming from the purported elite of the fourth-year class is a change at UVA that is, at a minimum, notable. There is no hint of “thankfulness” for wearing the “honors of honor” when one uses a sexual expletive to describe the institution. If students are moving from grateful to ingrate, this too is a change for which I can restrain my enthusiasm.
Ironically, if not sadly, the University Guides may be a reflection of this change in how students perceive the University.
When my wife Terry and I were Lawn residents – the years were 1992-2003 – we got to know many of the University Guides. We lived in Pavilion IV. The Guides hung out in Pavilion VIII. They were a group of students who loved UVA. They were ambassadors for the school.
The word on the street is that one can now take a tour of the Lawn and the University Guide might be so negative about the school – about its heritage, about its founder – that those on the tour have wondered: “why did this student decide to go to school here, if it is so bad; if the founder was such a terrible person?”
My speech teacher at Kalamazoo College told me it was especially important, when I gave a talk, to let the audience know when I was coming near the end. I did not hear her say this to any other student in the class, so I asked her why. She said, “Kenny, (that was my name then), Kenny, this would revive hope among your audience.” I am near the end of this talk.
So, before I conclude, here is number four on my list of what I wish were otherwise: the strength of what I shall call the cancel culture at UVA. Many students and faculty do not feel free to express their views. At a university, mind you. How many is impossible to tell – because people who are sufficiently cowed will, as one of my colleagues put it, “keep their head down.”
The Student Council mounts an attack on Christian groups – claiming that their views on human sexuality means they should not be allowed to meet on grounds – even though Mr. Jefferson intended a room in the Rotunda to be set aside for the discussion of religious views.
The Cavalier Daily writes an editorial claiming that a speech by the former Vice-President of the United States should not be allowed to be given on grounds because his speech – a speech that had not even yet been given – will be a form of violence.
A medical student questions the concept of microaggression at a talk on micro aggression – and is dismissed from the University for doing so.
A former student of mine, Emma Camp, who does not identify as a conservative or being religious, writes an op-ed in the New York Times describing how students do not feel free to express their views at the University – for fear of being cancelled. She is then criticized on social media for expressing this view.
Had Emma Camp written an op-ed piece in the New York Times on a dozen other topics, would she not be recognized and applauded by the UVA communications machine?
As far as I can tell, no mention is made of Emma Camp’s piece in UVA Today; and I will not hold my breath that what she wrote will get a mention in the UVA Alumni magazine. A colleague tried to help me understand this: he told me, “Ken, UVA Today and the Alumni Magazine don’t do journalism; they do advertising.”
A Dean once asked me why students at UVA would be fearful of expressing their views. I suggested performing what Germans call a Gedanken experiment, a thought experiment.
Imagine a female student at UVA who is a devout Roman Catholic. She holds to the view of her church about abortion. She would like to have a forum in which various views of abortion could be discussed – including her own.
She goes to the Women’s Center and asks if the Center would be willing to sponsor and promote such a forum. Would she be welcome?
To ask the question is to answer it.
Or as another thought experiment: imagine a student from California who believes affirmative action is wrong – either wrong as a matter of Constitutional interpretation or wrong because affirmative action may have consequences different from its intentions.
This student, incidentally, would be with the majority of California voters who voted down Prop 16 in her state – and I am told a majority of voters who are black voted against the government using affirmative action.
Here is the thought experiment: would she feel free to make her views on affirmative action known if she were applying for a position as a Resident Advisor in a dorm or to intern inside a university that expects or requires a DEI statement on most every application.
Again, to ask the question is to answer it.
I believe that many employees at UVA – faculty and administrators – believe they believe in free speech. But all this means is they welcome what the British would call “the loyal opposition.” That is, people who do not quite agree with them, but are close. The loyal opposition is OK because they do not control what happens anyway.
I fear that that many students at UVA fail to understand that the First Amendment does not just protect the thoughts of people like them – but is designed to protect those at the margin of the social and political and religious culture.
I wonder if some students, who think they are speaking “truth to power” do not realize what they are doing is virtue signaling.
If you believe in free speech, really believe in it, you do not do so because you think dissenters are to be tolerated. You believe they have a right to be heard.
Some years ago, I had the good fortune to be a visiting scholar at the University of Chicago. I met Harry Kalven, a beloved professor in the law school. Kalven understood that freedom of speech belongs “to the inarticulate and angry as well as to the loyal and respectful opposition.” He did not think that ‘crackpots’ and ‘subversives’ and ‘extremists’ deserve First Amendment protection because they are harmless. He thought they deserve protection because they may have something to say that ought to be heard in a democratic society.”
I am a born-again Christian. I subscribe to two magazines that are very hostile to the Christian faith. I do not believe they deserve First Amendment protection out of a sense of noblesse oblige; I want to read what they have to say.
Adam Smith, one of the heroes in economics, referred to the “obvious and simple system of natural liberty.” I fear for that system – not only because today’s cultural gatekeepers find it threatening but because many young people – students at UVA – do not understand its value.
I appreciate the words in the University’s Statement on Free Expression and Free Inquiry. Hats off to Jim Ryan for making this happen.
But we know the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
I would feel better about the University’s statement if the medical student who was dismissed because he questioned the concept of microagression at a public lecture was welcomed back to the University, with apologies, and with sanctions upon those who would thwart his right to disagree with the proposition that such speech is violence.
So – there you have my remarks. There are those who will dismiss what I have said as the grumbles of an old white male, who, if that were not bad enough, is a Christian to boot.
Sadly, in today’s woke culture, such a characterization is effective in dismissing a person’s views – even though to dismiss my views because I am a white male is itself racist in form and substance.
But I do not offer these remarks as the grumbles of an old white male. I make them as someone whose life has been marked over and again by grace, unmerited favor, and part of that grace is being a faculty member at Mr. Jefferson’s University during these years the good Lord has given me.
I consider being a professor a calling; and a calling for which I am thankful to God and thankful to the members of a hiring committee in the Department of Economics who years ago took a chance on me, one I did not deserve and still do not. Bottom line: it is all about grace.
I offer these remarks against the chance they will be helpful or encouraging to those who want to maintain and protect UVA as a place where, as Mr. Jefferson put it, “Errors of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
Thank you for being my audience this evening. Go Hoos.
Vincent Blasi, “Harry Kalven” in Edward Shils (ed.) Remembering The University of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1991), p. 225.
Freedom of speech is among the most powerful tools by which wrongs are righted and institutions are improved or abolished. Principles of free inquiry extend to robust discussion and critical examination of the past. Equally importantly, they live in the present and extend to the future, in a shared commitment to free expression for all speakers and all views.