UVA, Wokeness, and Rooms on the Lawn

by James A. Bacon

Once upon a time in a galaxy far far way, it was considered a great honor among 4th-year University of Virginia students to be selected for residence on the Lawn — the architectural heart of the university designed by Thomas Jefferson and now designated a world heritage site. The accommodations  were less than luxurious — most memorably, the 47 rooms were not equipped with their own bathrooms. There were offsetting advantages. The rooms had fireplaces, and the University provided a plentiful supply of wood. But living on the Lawn was mainly about status. It conferred recognition of a student’s accomplishments in his or her first three years.

Something is happening at UVa, and I don’t fully understand it. The prestige of a Lawn residency is declining. The trend was made visible last year when a 4th-year woman posted a prominent sign on her door emblazoned with the words “F— UVA” and in subsequent statements dismissing founder Thomas Jefferson as a slave-holder and a rapist. As evidenced by supporting signage on other doors, other Lawn residents shared her sentiments.

But the decline in prestige long precedes that particular expression of animus toward the university granting the honor, and it precedes even the reign of wokeness under current President Jim Ryan. As shown in the table above, submitted by UVa in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by UVa alumnus and Bacon’s Rebellion contributor Walter Smith, applications to live on the Lawn have fallen steadily and precipitously — 37% — over the past five years.

I have not studied this issue closely, so any conclusions I state here are preliminary and tentative. But I would suggest that the decline in interest in Lawn residency reflects the larger downgrading of the university’s Jeffersonian legacy and its traditions by the administration, faculty and, downstream, of the students. In not merely apologizing for but wallowing in UVa’s slave-holding and segregationist past, UVa leaders have effectively de-legitimized their own institution. When the university expunges the names of ancient benefactors from buildings, and when controversies arise over the racist implications of everything from the famed serpentine walls (which supposedly hid slaves from view) to the curves in the athletic V-sabre logo (which evoke the serpentine walls), the administration has systematically devalued the university’s history and traditions while doing nothing to uphold them.

Ironically, even as the administration, faculty and activist students bemoan the racism of UVa’s past, 60% of the students offered the prestigious slots this year were “students of color,” in the university’s nomenclature. There is a strong possibility that the Lawn selection process has been biased to favor non-whites. For instance, 22% of all offers extended this year went to African-American students, who comprise only 7% of the student body. Whites, comprising 59% of the student body, received only 40% of the offers.

The University does not provide the racial background of the applicants. But I would conjecture that the decline in applications has been most pronounced among whites, who have concluded, not without foundation, that the odds are stacked against them. Many whites at UVa are retreating from the oppressive wokeness around them.

Traditions do need to evolve with the times, as does our understanding of the past. UVa’s connection to slavery and segregation were long swept under the rug. It is right to exume painful history so that we may learn from it. But UVa is throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Acknowledging the past has morphed into cultural cleansing. UVa is distinctive among U.S. public universities in the richness of its heritage and traditions. Without them, UVa is just another state university competing on the basis of its wokeness.

That is not a formula for greatness. The declining interest in living on the Lawn is silent witness to the self destruction of a once-renowned institution.

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Tom Neale
Tom Neale
2 years ago

Jim, great article. The precipitous decline in Lawn room applications is a leading indicator of the decline in respect for and love of the Jeffersonian traditions that formerly permeated UVA.

Continual denigration of Thomas Jefferson with no regard for historical context diminishes the man and the academic institution. UVA is now just Berkeley East. A competitive state university where you get a degree and move on. If that is what a rising 4th year student thinks of UVA, why would you put up with the “hassle” of living on the Lawn – no AC, outdoor trip to use the bathroom, etc.?

1 year ago

You assume that the Black students do not have the credentials to live on the Lawn. I am the parent of an African-American Lawn resident with a 4.0 GPA in one of the selective honors programs and who is active in numerous campus organizations and holds leadership roles, and other Black Lawn residents we know of also have high credentials and GPA’s. My husband is also a UVA alum who plays an active role in the UVA alumni community, including fundraising and recruiting UVA students of all races for finance positions in his field, and who was also an academically high-achieving Lawn resident who graduated with honors from an intense academic program within the university. You need data to support your assertions bc the people we know from two different generations were among UVA’s best students by every measure. In fact, one of my husband’s friends was awarded a Lawn room for being the top pre-med student in his class (and he was African-American).