by James A. Bacon
The executive board of the University of Virginia student council has asked the Virginia General Assembly to reject Governor Glenn Youngkin’s appointment of Bert Ellis to the Board of Visitors.
The letter was addressed to Democratic Party leaders of the state senate. The Senate is comprised of 33Democrats and 18 Republicans, which gives Democrats the power to block the nomination if they follow a party-line vote. None have commented publicly yet on their intention.
The letter, which recycled charges made earlier this year by the UVa student council and faculty senate, described the Ellis appointment as “reckless, ill intentioned and threatening to the safety of the marginalized students at this University.”
The Daily Progress repeated the allegations and linked to the letter without any offsetting comment from Ellis, the Youngkin administration, or the Jefferson Council, a UVa alumni organization of which Ellis is president. Ellis’ email is readily available: It is listed on the Jefferson Council website, as is that of the executive director (me).
The vendetta against Ellis amounts to character assassination. The portrayal of him is so one-sided as to make him unrecognizable. Ellis offered to give his side of the story to the Faculty Senate but the offer was declined. The Jefferson Council has published rebuttals, and letters have been written to the Cavalier Daily, but Ellis’ critics have acknowledged none of the exculpatory facts and testimony. They appear to be impervious to anything that might disturb their narrative.
It’s one thing for students or faculty to concoct their own reality of Ellis as racist, but hopefully Democratic Party legislators will be sober-minded enough to consider all the facts. We urge them to allow Ellis to tell his side of the story, which includes how he is an investor in and CEO of Johnson Energy Storage, whose majority shareholder is Lonnie G. Johnson, an African American, and which employs 17 African-American PhD researchers.
The allegations against Ellis focus on one incident that occurred in 2020 and two that took place 50 years ago when he was a UVa student and tri-chairman of the Student Union, which organized major events at the time.
In the 2020 incident, Ellis was responding to a student who had posted a large sign emblazoned with the words “F— UVA” on the door of her room on the Lawn, which is designated part of a UNESCO World Heritage site and visited by tourists, prospective students and their families. Ellis thought to excise the sign with a razor blade but first tried unsuccessfully to engage the student, a woman of Pakistani heritage, in conversation. Two members of the UVA Ambassadors, volunteer student adjuncts to the university police, instructed him not to take down the sign, and he refrained from doing so.
Citing Student Council President Celia Cain, The Daily Progress incorrectly stated that the safety ambassadors “eventually escorted Ellis off the university grounds.” In truth, there was no need to escort Ellis off the grounds, and the student ambassadors found the incident so trivial that they never bothered to report it.
While student council portrayed Ellis’ action as an affront to free speech, Ellis did not dispute the student’s right to express her views anywhere else. But prominently displaying profanity on her door, he argued, violated the terms of her lease with the university. While the administration declined to order her to take down the sign, on the grounds that it would violate her free speech rights after its earlier failure to enforce the lease, it tightened the sign-posting policy in Lawn room leases the following academic year.
None of this context appears in the Student Council letter or The Daily Progress article. In its July 2022 resolution, Council declared Ellis’ action “reprehensible” and likened it to an act of White supremacy: “From the bondage and abuse experienced by enslaved people, to the violent occupation of Nazis and KKK members, to Bert Ellis — the Lawn is no stranger to racist violence under the guise of ‘Jeffersonian ideas.'”
In the 1975 incidents, resurrected by the Cavalier Daily, Ellis was one of three people on the triumvirate running the Student Union. He was also the spokesman for the group, so when a group decision to invite William Shockley to a debate on the grounds, he was the one quoted in the student newspaper at the time.
Last summer The Cavalier Daily presented a one-sided version of the facts, accusing Ellis of master-minding the invitation of a white supremacist to the speak at the university. Shockley did propound racist theories, insisting that Blacks on average had lower IQs than Whites. But as a scientist awarded the Nobel Prize winner for his invention of the transistor, he was held in high esteem by many and his ideas were taken seriously. Harvard University had scheduled a debate pitting Shockley versus a prominent Black intellectual, and the three organizers of the UVa Student Union thought to do the same. The key fact neglected by Ellis’ critics is that the Shockley event was a debate — a debate with respected Black biologist Richard Goldsby. The hope and expectation of the organizers, according to Ellis, was that Goldsby would demolish Shockley, thus debunking a widely held racist theory.
This morning The Jefferson Council received confirmation of Ellis’ account from Rick Kruger, another one of the Student Union tri-chairmen.
“Bert did not push [for the Shockley debate]. “I did,” Kruger says. “Full debate would be good, and it was. Goldsby handed it to Shockley. But to blame Bert is wrong.” He and the third tri-chairman, he said, “should have taken the blame” for organizing the event.
“And yes debate showed Shockley was ‘full of it,’ which was our hope!” he added.
In a separate incident, the Student Union declined to sponsor a speech by an early proponent of the gay rights movement. Ellis did not seek to block the event; he just said that he thought the topic would generate insufficient interest to warrant involving the Student Union. Fifty years ago the gay rights movement was in its infancy and did not enjoy the widespread sympathy it does today.
Readers who wish delve into the details of this controversy can find more here:
Correction: This post has been updated to state the proper number of Democrats and Republicans in the state senate.