by James A. Bacon
The Jefferson Council continues to receive negative reports about the student tours at the University of Virginia. On Nov. 11, 2023, an alumnus posting under the name JBHoo05 wrote the following on the Virginia Sportswar message board.
We had heard the tour at UVA was not good but decided to still go ahead and schedule one today. Even with low expectations, the tour managed to be worse than we expected. Our guide was kind but at times I wondered whether she even really liked UVA despite telling us at the end how much she loved it. We heard about how the dining hall food is not great (a given at a lot of schools but aren’t you supposed to spin things with a somewhat positive light on these tours?), how the school is “mostly safe” (who says that on an admissions tour?), how UVA has won 31 national championships in football (I wish), how almost all your classes will be in this area (we were standing in front of Cocke Hall), and then to top it off – a depressing 15 minute lecture (standing in the middle of the lawn on a beautiful day) on how the grounds were built with enslaved labor and details about the white supremacist rally (we were warned before she started that some of us might need to step away and take a break because we were about to start discussing some pretty hard stuff….what???). I have no problem participating in difficult discussions about UVA’s history but why in the heck would that be on an admissions tour and be one of the longest parts of the tour?
The last time we checked, back in June, University of Virginia officials assured us they were dealing with the problem of UVa-loathing Student Guides turning off prospective students with negative tours. The Admissions Office had hired an associate dean to improve the experience for prospective students, had increased the number of paid interns to give tours with approved scripts, and was engaging in conversation with volunteer Student Guides, who for decades have been entrusted with running the tours.
So, what the heck is going on? Has UVa fixed the phenomenon of rogue guides, or hasn’t it? I asked Stephen Farmer, vice president for enrollment, who has always responded to our questions with alacrity. His response to the JBHoo05 post:
As I mentioned back in June, this fall, in addition to Guide-led tours, the admission office has been offering tours led by student interns whom the office has recruited and trained. Based on what I’ve seen, heard, and heard about, the interns have done a good job. They understand that we depend on them to welcome guests warmly and tell good and truthful stories about the University and student life on Grounds. They’ve been eager to learn and have responded well to the feedback they’ve received. That feedback has generally been positive and trending in the right direction.
Where the University Guides are concerned, the organization’s leaders have worked actively with our team to respond to concerns and to troubleshoot tour content that is either inaccurate or inappropriate. We believe that they are on firmer ground as an organization than they were five months ago, that the leadership remains motivated to improve, and that we have in fact seen some improvement in the accuracy, tone, and overall quality of the admission tours that Guides provide.
Of course, it’s unacceptable that we’re still receiving any negative reviews, much less any that are as negative as the ones you shared. And regardless of the group – Guides or interns – that provided a disappointing tour, the disappointment is ultimately our responsibility.
Our job is to help our guests feel at home while they’re on Grounds and to have them leave us feeling respected, encouraged, and inspired. We’ll take stock next month of where we are, and we’ll decide what adjustments we’ll need to make heading into next semester.
Roughly what percentage of student tours (as opposed to historical tours open to the wider public) are led by Admissions interns and by Student Guides, I asked. Farmer’s response:
As a quick and rough estimate, the tours this fall have been split 50/50 between interns and University Guides.
Bottom line: After two years of controversy, the UVa admissions department still relies upon a student club with a demonstrated history of portraying UVa in a dismal light. Evidently, efforts to troubleshoot “inaccurate or inappropriate” tour content have enjoyed limited success.
As a voluntary student club, the Student Guides should be free to offer tours with whatever content they please, no matter how derogatory or defamatory of Thomas Jefferson and the University’s history. That’s free speech. But the administration is irresponsible to funnel prospective students to an organization whose presentations have been so persistently negative. Let the Student Guides find their own audience for their tours… if they can.
The fact that Admissions continues to rely upon the Student Guides for half of its tours is just incomprehensible.