The Purge Comes for Edwin Alderman

by James A. Bacon

As president of the University of Virginia between 1904 and 1931, Edwin Anderson Alderman led Thomas Jefferson’s university into the 21st century. A self-proclaimed “progressive” of the Woodrow Wilson stamp, he advocated higher taxes to support public education, admitted the first women into UVA graduate programs, boosted enrollment and faculty hiring, established the university’s endowment, reformed governance and gave UVA its modern organizational structure. Most memorably to Wahoos of the current era, he built a state-of-the-art facility, named Alderman Library in his honor, to further the pursuit of knowledge.

Like many other “progressives” of the era, Alderman also promoted the science (now known to be a pseudo-science) of eugenics, and he held racist views that today have been roundly rejected in the 21st century.

A movement has burgeoned at UVA to remove Alderman’s name from the library. The Ryan administration was poised in December to ask for Board of Visitors approval to take that step by renaming the newly renovated facility after former President Edgar Shannon. The administration withdrew the proposal after determining it did not have a majority vote. But Team Ryan could resurrect the name change at the February/March meeting of the Board, as suggested in the flier seen above.

The issue is bigger than the naming of a library. The issue is whether there are any limits to the purging of names and memorials of historical figures who were instrumental in the growth and development of the university. Excepting only Thomas Jefferson himself, Alderman arguably did more to shape UVA than any other president.  If Alderman’s legacy is to be consigned to the memory hole on the grounds that he was a “white supremacist,” by what legerdemain of logic would outdated views about race prevent Jefferson from being canceled as well?

The time is way overdue for the UVA community to articulate principles for remembering the past. Broadly speaking, there are two approaches.

One way adds to our collective memory. It supplements older perspectives with new ones. It highlights the contributions of past figures while reevaluating them for our own time. Such an approach brings new facts and themes to our attention, and it reinterprets rather than banishes the parts that have fallen out of favor. In an additive approach to the past, for example, researching and honoring the contributions of once-historically invisible slaves adds to the richness of our understanding of an earlier era.

The alternative — the way called by for the Racial Equity Task Force and embraced by the Ryan administration — is purgative. Viewing the past mercilessly through the prism of the present, this approach is intolerant and retributive. Nothing is added; the whole is diminished. By deleting major figures from our collective memory, it shrinks our understanding. Thus, to take another example, tearing down the statue of Indian fighter George Rogers Clark eliminates an opportunity to think critically about encounters between an expanding United States empire and the indigenous peoples that stood in its way.

President Jim Ryan and Provost Ian Baucom insist they support viewpoint diversity and civil discourse at UVA. That claim is difficult to reconcile with their moves to purify the University from the tainted aspects of its history. Their renaming initiatives apply crude, one-dimensional yardsticks for evaluating the past. This one-flaw-and-you’re-out approach allows no room for complexity, nuance, or the ability to evaluate past figures with competing criteria of merit and unworthiness.

Perhaps the very worst thing about the de-naming of Edwin Alderman is the message that it sends the university community: There is only one truth, we know what it is, and the matter is settled for all time. That is how the quest for knowledge dies.

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Geoffrey Close
20 days ago

So what now? Will Charlottesville rename Alderman Road too? They could rename it “Bobby Seale Drive to honor one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. Are we ready to replay the “Cultural Revolution “ if China of the 1960s and destroy everything that is it “woke “ ? When will this insanity end?

Anne Carson Foard
Anne Carson Foard
20 days ago

I wonder if anyone has read “The Lost Jeffersons”, Joanne Yeck, describing that the original intent of eugenics as developed in Virginia was to address the unfortunate effects of intra-family marriages within Virginia families intent on keeping their land holdings intact. This was practiced even to the extent of the children of two first-cousin marriages marrying each other. So, the original intent had nothing to do with race. But if people are to be held to account for the outmoded views of earlier centuries, then the names of not just misguided Southern gentlemen but also those of Lincoln and many other prominent Northerners must also be erased for their decidedly racist views. Before the umbrage begins, I’ll point out that the end goal here is exactly that.

Karen C
Karen C
20 days ago

Hmmm. Wonder what Ryan and company will be noted for adding to the University in 100+ yrs that will call for the naming of structures to forever mark their contribution. The arrogance that current popular opinion may judge all that has preceeded the current glory . . . perhaps they should focus on adding value rather than judging those who created something they proudly joined.

Martin Anthony Senell
Martin Anthony Senell
20 days ago

What can any of us concerned alumni do to try to stop this insanity?

Joseph Andrew Miller,Esq BA '70
Joseph Andrew Miller,Esq BA '70
19 days ago

Join The Jefferson Council our new Alumni Association.

John Buckley
John Buckley
20 days ago

Better get rid of the city name of Charlottesville (named for a member of oppressive royalty); same for Albemarle County, named for a titular Governor of Virginia, who presided when there were plenty of slaves in the colony; and even get rid of the name of the state, as the “Virgin Queen” in the 1590s ordered the expulsion from England of certain black people.

Clarity77
Clarity77
20 days ago

As to the racism of the “progressives” of Alderman’s time, how is it any different or worse than the racism of present day leftist “progressives” who upon first sight of a prospective student’s skin color check off box on the admissions application, on that alone, immediately pre-judge them as to their relative ability? So SCOTUS rightfully rules to do away with this obvious racism as to affirmative action and yet Ryan, Baucom et al resist and cling to their racist ways, as they have vowed to do, in defiance of SCOTUS by way of alternate ways. So in a move to get rid of their all too obvious guilt as to racism they pivot to “purging” a past University president so as to virtue signal, gain absolution and approval by their woke cult. Pure insanity.

As to the “purge” of Alderman, it became crystal clear to me who is pushing this when on a behind the scenes construction tour sponsored by the current Marxist dean of the library I queried the staff guide as to the reasoning supporting removal of Alderman’s name. Her response was remarkably curt, dismissive, abrupt and emphatic that the name would be removed! No discussion! Wow! A great way to encourage an alumnus to open his wallet just like 2 years earlier over lunch in person with the Marxist UVA dean in Florida when I quoted Jefferson and he responded with quotes from Karl Marx!

As Mr. Bacon points out this is a trial run as to eventual cancellation of Jefferson, the very founder, by way of removal of a previous UVA president. Time for the BOV to once and for all do away with this absolute foolishness on the part of not just Ryan but also the Marxists lurking behind the scenes.

walter smith
walter smith
20 days ago

Jefferson and Washington and Madison and Monroe, and then the non-slave owning Yankee founders are all targeted, the latter for agreeing to the union to begin with.

And you have to understand how this sleight of hand is done. Ryan could not ram it through at the last meeting. So, time to call out Antifa, academia version. You call out your activists, recruited in admissions and likely paying little tuition, who comprise all of the activist clubs that signed the Hamas stuff and the new version of BDS, and scare the BOV into submission, thinking the activists actually are representative of students, and afraid of being called racist, and they fold like a cheap suit.

GROW A PAIR! And, propose canceling all the abortion advocates. And Joe Biden and Kamala Harris each have slave-owning ancestors. Robert F. Byrd? Or how about all the medical establishment during Covid remaining silent while the Nuremberg Code was violated? Call them the Mengeles they were. You can’t play pussyfoot with Marxists. As that great community organizer said, “Punch back twice as hard.”

Albert Keatts
Albert Keatts
18 days ago

No man is all one thing, not even today, in our “enlightened” society. There is some black and white. And a whole lot of gray. Who made us the arbiters of right and wrong for all time? The people we are currently “condemning” were products of their times. Mostly good men. But not perfect ones Why can we not honor their good contributions while being aware of, and learning from, their shortcomings? Makes no sense to me. Where do we drawn the lines and when will enough be done to balance the transgressions of the past? At some point this becomes ridiculous. It’s certainly impossible in my view.