UVA As a “Maze of Predatory Systems”

by James A. Bacon

If you visit the latest exhibit at the University of Virginia’s Ruffin Gallery, “EscapeRoom,” it takes no more than five or ten seconds for the artists’ message to sink in — the amount of time it takes to read the signage at the entrance:

The University of Virginia (UVA) is a site of reckoning. The legacies of slavery and white supremacy reverberate throughout its built environment. EscapeRoom confronts the frameworks of injustice that contemporary audiences inhabit and inherit in relation to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. … EscapeRoom charts critical routes through a maze of predatory systems.

Inside, the exhibits contributed by multiple artists elaborate upon the white-supremacy theme. Five 3D-printed pieces of porcelain, for instance, are described as giving “materiality, scale and dimension to the many ‘tools’ that mediate state violence visited upon Black victims: horses, batons, guns, tear gas, and more.”

A mobile made of steel sheet metal “examines violence visited upon Black people at the hands of the American state. It attends to the paradoxes of Black life and death in this anti-Black world.”

To set foot in the EscapeRoom is to enter a world of victimhood that would have been entirely justified a century or two ago but seems tragically out of date 60 years after the passage of Civil Rights legislation, the enactment of the Great Society’s war on poverty, and the dramatic transformation of attitudes toward race in America — not to mention the implementation of Racial Equity Task Force recommendations at UVA itself that made the exhibit possible in the first place.

Back in 2020 I was saddened and appalled when a student living on the Lawn scrawled “F— UVA” in massive letters on her door. In a subsequent TV interview she referred to the Lawn as a “space for whiteness” and Thomas Jefferson as a “white supremacist rapist and enslaver.” Where did this animosity originate, many of us wondered. How had such thinking gained traction at Mr. Jefferson’s university?

The EscapeRoom exhibit provides part of the answer. The curators and artists speak not only for themselves. They speak with the approval and support of a University administration that has made a point of not just hiring more minority faculty and staff to the University but recruiting minorities marinated in the ideology of intersectional oppression.

Multimedia images from EscapeRoom

It is entirely legitimate to research and reflect upon the impact of slavery and racism in America, Virginia, and UVA. That is part of our history, and it must be incorporated into our collective memory. But what we see from University leadership under the guise of being “great and good” is an unremitting fixation on injustice, grievance, and victimhood that (1) drives home the message that racism and injustice and endemic are still prevalent today, (2) offers no vision of a way forward other than criticizing “whiteness,” and (3) solicits no alternative perspectives.

Not every scholar at UVA subscribes to those propositions. Many faculty members whose hiring preceded the current administration entertain more diverse perspectives. But faculty recruitment under President Jim Ryan has heavily favored faculty who do share the intersectional-oppression paradigm. In recent years, UVA has pulled every financial leverage available to advance the woke narrative. The $20 million spent to maintain UVA’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion bureaucracy identified by Open the Books only scratches the surface. Intersectional-oppression rhetoric pervades every part of the university.

The EscapeRoom exhibit is illustrative. The Ruffin Gallery, located just off Rugby Road, showcases four to six contemporary art exhibits yearly. Those exhibits receive financial support from a variety of sources. EscapeRoom, for instance, is sponsored by three entities: the UVA Arts Council, the Vice Provost for the Arts, and the Department of Art.

Marisa Williamson as the ghost of Thomas Jefferson

The lead curator of the art exhibition is Marisa Williamson, an assistant professor of studio art. For a deep dive into her worldview, see the profile we are publishing in conjunction with his article, but in brief, she describes herself as a project-based artist who works in video, image-making, installation and performance “around themes of history, race, feminism, and technology.” At various times, she has engaged in performance art as Sally Hemings, alleged rape victim of Thomas Jefferson, and has portrayed Jefferson’s ghost in whiteface.

Despite her status as a victim of intersectional oppression (doubly held down as Black and as a woman), Williamson nonetheless managed to get admitted into and graduate from Harvard and go on to win grants from the Graham Foundation, Rema Hort Mann Foundation and the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. In 2018, she was appointed the Ruffin Distinguished Artist in Residence at UVA. Her works have been featured in exhibitions around the country and abroad.

According to her UVA website, Williamson was part of the first cohort of faculty hired through a $5 million initiative devoted to “Race, Justice and Equity.” That builds upon a $3.5 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded grant to hire 10 tenure/tenure track faculty working on the Global South (Africa, Latin America, South Asia, East Asia, and other regions); another Mellon Foundation grant to appoint “30 Race, Place and Equity” postdoctoral fellows across the University; and a University endowment commitment to recruit “underrepresented graduate students.”

“Our national reckoning on race, justice and equity will test and sharpen our commitment to democracy and reshape the nation: comprehensively, and one community at a time,” stated the November 2020 proposal to Mellon submitted by Provost Ian Baucom, DEI head Kevin McDonald, and the deans of the Batten school of leadership, the McIntire school of commerce, and the College of Arts & Sciences.

One of the best means by which we tell that history is through place-based education and by bringing a next generation of scholars to this place, a University that lives at that point of urgent intersection, to help us imagine and shape its future. (My bold.)

The proposal suggested that “a robust racial equity post-doctoral fellows and faculty-hiring program … will build a community of scholars of race, justice, and equity who can help lead our university, our community, and the nation.”

The exhibit itself was sponsored by the UVA Department of Art and the UVA Arts Council. In the 2022-23 year, the Arts Council disseminated $127,000 in grants to Charlottesville-area programs, including $10,000 to Ruffin Gallery “exhibitions and artists in residence.”

The abstract multimedia presentations might bewilder some visitors to EscapeRoom. In an interview with WTJU radio, Williamson provides an explanation that might prove helpful to those who find the artwork an unintelligible jumble of words, images and themes. “One big theme is race, vision and surveillance,” she said. “That might give us some clues into how Black and brown, and women, and fem people who are vulnerable in society might combat or avoid these dominant surveillance strategies.”

“I wanted to lay a groundwork for being able to interrogate the university from within and perform some institutional critique in a subtle way to get those conversations started about what can be done, mapping the history of this university so we can start repairing where we can in very specific ways,” she continued.

“This show,” she said, “is just the beginning of a larger effort to make visible a hidden past here at UVA.”

The Jefferson Council will convene its 3rd annual meeting April 9 to discuss reforms in governance and the allocation of funds. We encourage readers and members to visit the EscapeRoom exhibit before its last day Friday. Be respectful to the curators, take note of their messaging, and then come to the meeting prepared to share. Is this the best use of our university donations and tax dollars? 

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Madeleine Chandler Chandler
Madeleine Chandler Chandler
28 days ago

I am appalled and disgusted at the things that UVA is doing. I began working at UVA in 1963 when my husband started Law School and I later finished graduate school here. I want to go to Jim Ryan’s office and give him my diploma because I am repulsed at the way this university that I once loved and felt so much allegiance to has become. I would never be able to teach there today in the climate that exists. Thank you for what you are doing and keeping us apprised of what is happening.

Hamilton
Hamilton
28 days ago

Thank goodness that you are shining on a light on this nonsense.

Anne Carson Foard
Anne Carson Foard
27 days ago

Thomas Jefferson created the University they now are welcome to attend, but continually pushing the history of discrimination into an exaggerated spotlight seems to reflect a deep insecurity about their position, perhaps fearing others see them as unworthy. This may be an unfortunate outcome of continuing affirmative action past its useful life.

Jim Kovalchick
Jim Kovalchick
27 days ago

Jim Ryan needs to be fired immediately. This is more than pandering. This is hate at its core. These people are not victims because it is a choice to attend Virginia. No one is forcing them to be there. To be in public with white face is an aggressive and hateful attack on white people. Jim Ryan should be every bit as angry about this as I’m sure he would be if someone stood in the same place in black face. It is wrong and reprehensible.

Clarity77
Clarity77
27 days ago

Thank you Jim Bacon for your excellent work in exposing what is self evident to us as to the current lunacy and insanity at UVA. When I say “us” I am referring to those who value reason as Jefferson and the founding fathers did.

I am reminded though that to Ryan, Baucom et al who obviously do not value Jefferson or reason, in their minds promoting this Marxist insanity, is in fact “great and good.” Marxists do not give any value to facts when the facts do not conform to their political narrative. The Marxist dogma is to be adhered to at the expense of truth, facts, science and all those aspects that undergird reasoned and sane thinking.

And as we are witnessing, the victimhood, hate and emotion driven behavior currently on grounds only serves to destroy a healthy student experience. And yet Ryan and Baucom would so characterize this as “great and good.” Disgusting and shameful. Is it not time for a change?

walter smith
walter smith
27 days ago
Reply to  Clarity77

And one wonders why the rates of student depression, in the face of great material wealth and facilities far nicer than when we attended, are historically off the charts…
Go back to pursuing truth (and Truth)!!!
There are being filled with nothingness…and nothingness, obviously, leaves a void that is not satisfied with more nothingness. Instead it stokes a fire of hatred, division, resentment…

Clarity77
Clarity77
25 days ago
Reply to  walter smith

Once again Walter you hit the nail on the head as to “go back to pursuing Truth!!!” Jonathan Haidt zeroed in on this very core problem in Marxism as practiced by Ryan, Baucom et al where Truth is to be dispensed in deference to social justice. Hence, Baucom’s stated intention to rename UVA as Sally Hemmings University. That is totally sick! And thank you for revealing that as I had not known he actually stated that!

I hope at our upcoming TJC conference that one of the speakers points out and reminds the audience of this very core issue that Haidt clearly revealed that is infecting UVA as it must be identified and dealt with like any pathogen is targeted as to any physical illness. Marxism is a known and clearly identifiable germ as to infecting and causing mental illness in anyone, student or otherwise.

Back to Haidt, who founded the Heterodox Academy as a way to fight back against this Marxist insanity on university campuses, there is a social planned the evening of the day after our TJC conference in C’ville that provides an opportunity to converse and learn more with current UVA faculty. They welcome alumni and I am looking forward to attending.

I hope other TJC members can join and come as it is a further way to gather forces and work for change at UVA so as, to quote you, “get back to pursuing Truth!” Truth being the original foundational intention to every significant university in world history, whether it be Harvard(Veritas) but now which has become infected and is obviously sick.

walter smith
walter smith
25 days ago
Reply to  Clarity77

Speaking of truth…James Lindsay has a new “Bullet Points” video/podcast out on the necessity of telling the truth – loving the truth!
I would like to get him to speak at UVA. Maybe he could expound on Jefferson’s “follow truth” maxim in the beginning of the fall semester. I was surprised how affordable he is…
Anyway, here is a link to the video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GXEHXM9uuc&t=4s

I recommend listening to all of his “Bullet Points” – there are now 87 of them and a speed of 1.25 is just right and makes your walks quite productive – mind and body!

Clarity77
Clarity77
23 days ago
Reply to  walter smith

But being productive, conscientious, truth and health focused are all a form of white supremacy to which “nap resistance,” as we learned from the DEI director over in the UVA med school, is an appropriate and encouraged response. Gain a few pounds, no worries, she can now join a UVA sponsored “fat camp” and FEEL better as there she will learn to be a social justice warrior for all oppressed fat people. Being part of a grievance group promoting social justice is far more important than being physically and mentally healthy at UVA these days under the Ryan administration.

The only problem as you have related is finding space in Newcomb Hall for this new fat camp social justice group, especially when a “plus size” room is required for accomodating “plus size” furniture. I am sure though a UVA donor will be found for a new building named for the donor of course that will be suitable and architecturally focused on the feelings of the rotund.

Thanks Walter for the tip on the James Lindsay podcast, and I will access tomorrow on my drive from Florida up to C’ville.

UVA Past
UVA Past
27 days ago

Kindly let me know when this is over so I can start giving to UVA again.

Joseph Andrew Miller BA '70
Joseph Andrew Miller BA '70
27 days ago
Reply to  UVA Past

Agreed, use my Alumnus % of the D.E.I. budget and payroll to provide scholarships. Maybe American History should be mandatory along with Constitutional Law to all who attend “The Grounds.” Do we still call it that ?, or has “Academic Village been scrapped when opinions differ.