by James A. Bacon
The University of Virginia Faculty Senate has voted to censure Bert Ellis, a Board of Visitors member, for violating the university’s “foundational values” two years ago when he “prepared to vandalize a protest sign” by a resident of the Lawn.
Ellis acquired a paint-scraper razor with the aim of removing a large sign that said, “FUCK UVA,” but did not act upon his intention when two student ambassadors (unarmed volunteer adjuncts to the university police) advised him not to.
The resolution expressed the Senate’s opposition to Ellis’ appointment to the Board and censured him for behavior “which neither reflects the Mission Statement of the University of Virginia nor fosters the safe space requisite for the free investigation, deliberation, and exploration of ideas.”
Sixty-one of 84 Faculty Senate members voted in an online tally after the resolution was proposed last week. Thirty-seven members voted in favor of the resolution, while 15 voted against and nine abstained, according to Senate Chair Tish Jennings.
Ellis was one of four board members appointed in June by Governor Glenn Youngkin to the UVa Board, which was, and still is, dominated by holdovers from the Northam administration. A conservative businessman and alumnus, Ellis is president of The Jefferson Council, which is dedicated to protecting the Jeffersonian legacy at UVa, upholding the dignity of the Academical Village of which the Lawn is a part, preserving the Honor Code, and protecting free speech, free expression and intellectual diversity.
In passing the resolution, the Senate joined the UVa Student Council, the executive board of the Cavalier Daily student newspaper, and the Democratic Party of Virginia in calling for Ellis’s resignation.
The resolution emerged from the Senate’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Committee, and the case against Ellis was presented by committee chairman Eric Matthew Ramirez-Weaver. Ellis offered to appear before the board to present his side of the story, but his offer was declined. Although Ellis had no comment about the vote, I can express the sentiments of the Jefferson Council board, of which I am a member, that the resolution is a travesty.
The resolution condemns Ellis for something he thought about doing, not something he actually did. Ellis’s real offense was criticizing UVa’s DEI policies for trashing revered UVa traditions, imposing left-wing dogma regarding a wide range of social justice issues, and contributing to the suppression of free expression and free thought. The Senate resolution confirms the lengths to which proponents of the new orthodoxy will go to expunge anyone with dissenting views.
The Jefferson Council finds it encouraging, however, that a majority of faculty senators did not feel moved to vote in favor of the resolution. Those who voted against, abstained, or declined to vote at all numbered 47, compared to the 37 who voted in favor.
The episode in question centers on Ellis’ reaction to the posting of the FUCK UVA sign on the door of a Lawn residence. The Lawn and Rotunda are architectural masterpieces that comprise a United Nations World Heritage Site visited by tourists, prospective students and many others. Angered by the vulgarity and inappropriateness of the sign, Ellis purchased a paint scraper at a local hardware store, and went to the Lawn with the idea of cutting it down. He knocked on the door of the Lawn resident who posted it, Hira Azher, and tried to engage her in conversation. She closed the door in his face. He backed off his intention to cut down the sign when told not to by two student ambassadors, who said they had been assigned to protect it. Although the sign violated the terms of the student’s lease agreement, the administration cited free speech grounds for allowing Azher to maintain it for the duration of her lease. The administration began enforcing limits on door signs the following academic year.
The resolution reads as follows:
WHEREAS the Mission Statement of the University of Virginia states, “We are defined by: Our enduring commitment to a vibrant and unique residential learning environment marked by the free and collegial exchange of ideas; our unwavering support of a collaborative, diverse community bound together by distinctive foundational values of honor, integrity, trust, and respect;”
WHEREAS the Faculty Senate confirms our commitment to these principles;
AND WHEREAS, Mr. Ellis violated these principles when he came to the University of Virginia on Friday, September 11, 2020, prepared to vandalize a protest sign mounted by the student resident of East Lawn 36 with a razor;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Senate opposes the appointment of U. Bertram Ellis, Jr. to the governing Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Senate censures Mr. Ellis’ behavior which neither reflects the Mission Statement of the University of Virginia nor fosters the safe space requisite for the free investigation, deliberation, and exploration of ideas.
During the Friday discussion nursing professor Kimberly Acquaviva built upon the “safe space” theme. “We cannot have a space in which people’s views are suppressed with someone yielding (wielding? Ed.) a razor blade,” she said, according to the CD. The CD coverage is not clear on the point, but apparently reference was made to SEC-030, a policy that prohibits the possession, storage and use of “any weapon,” including razor blades, during planned events or incidents such as riots within the Academical Village.
Law professor Rich Hynes said that the resolution did not provide enough evidence regarding Ellis’s conduct to justify the censure. If Ellis’s behavior violated weapons policy — which he doubted — then the focus should be on public safety, not the free of exchange of ideas, he said, according to the CD.
“The resolution doesn’t say that he actually vandalized the sign,” Hymes said. “It doesn’t actually even say any specific conduct that I think warrants a censure. If we pass this resolution, we’ll be opening ourselves to the criticism that the real motivation is that we object to Mr. Ellis’s political views.”
Full disclosure: The author is vice president-communications of The Jefferson Council.