Letter from Hooper Neale, Class of 2017…
I would like to start this letter out by saying that I love the University of Virginia. I attended UVA from August 2013 – May 2017, and those were probably the best four years of my life thus far. Twenty-nineteen was another one of my favorite years, largely because I travelled to Minneapolis in April to see the UVA basketball team win March Madness, and then travelled to Philadelphia the
next month to see the Lacrosse team take home a championship as well.
Everyone who knows me realizes my deep love for UVA and my passion for encouraging others to attend and/or visit the University, in hope that they may experience the same love I have. Unsurprisingly, it has been heartbreaking for me to see what has been allowed at the University during the past month
and a half.
Firstly, honor is extremely important to me. At my high school, I was the Honor Board representative for my class as a freshman and sophomore, the Vice President as a junior, and President as a senior. When I arrived at UVA, I planned to join the Honor Committee as a First Year. My sister, a Fourth Year then, was on the Committee at the time. I applied and did not even make it past the first round. I was shocked that having four years of experience as both a
representative and a leader of my high school’s Honor Board, as well as having a sister on the Committee at the time, was not sufficient to get me an interview. That being said, it comforted me to know that those who would join the Honor Committee must be extremely qualified – the University, I felt, must be in good, honorable hands.
Fast forward to now, seven years later – I have lost that sense of comfort. I do not mean to say I feel there has been an Honor violation, but rather, I sense a loss of emphasizing and upholding the honor and pride of being a University of Virginia student. How is it that multiple students who have the HONOR of living on The Lawn are posting signs that read “FUCK UVA” on their doors? Simply put, I am mind blown.
Hira Azher and the other students living on The Lawn who followed her lead and hung similar posters must have liked the University enough four years ago to apply. They respected the school enough to accept the offer to attend. They enjoyed their first three years enough to not only return for a fourth year, but also to apply to live on The Lawn. Now, they have decided to respond to this privilege by plastering profanities on their doors. I have a few reactions to this.
Firstly, as I said, living on The Lawn is an honor that many students apply for and dream of. If I were one of the students who unsuccessfully applied to live on The Lawn this year, I would be furious to see how some of those who were selected are treating the privilege.
Secondly, where did this sudden hate for the University come from? Why now? Anyone who applies to the University of Virginia should know that Thomas Jefferson was its founder. Anyone who knows anything about history should know Thomas Jefferson’s past. Did these students just learn last month that Jefferson owned slaves? Did they just discover that slaves helped build the University?
It seems far too convenient that these signs come during a time of nationwide protests, where a vast majority of young people are striving to be “woke.” During the past few months across the country, people have loved to test their limits – to see how far they can go, how many rules they can break, without being reprimanded in the slightest, because they are doing so while “supporting” a controversial topic. Please do not get me wrong – I believe there have been
countless peaceful protests and movements that are commendable.
Does putting “FUCK UVA” on one’s door on The Lawn accomplish anything productive? Has one positive change come from this? I know it has gravely upset the majority of alumni (and students) and put you, the University leaders, in a tough spot. Is that what positive change is?
Call me crazy, but I think not. If Hira and company were posting these signs to inform others and open a dialogue, that would be one thing. I would still disagree with their tactics and encourage the removal of their signs, but at least the end goal would be positive. In her recently posted Cavalier Daily article, however, Hira said “I do not write this to create a space for conversation with those that are offended by my expression of anger, including President Jim Ryan, because frankly that is a futile pursuit. I also do not write this as the spokesperson or the representative of these complicated issues.” Here, Hira quite literally admits that she posted an offensive sign and justifies it by saying it is not her responsibility to explain or engage in any conversation about it.
Talk about privilege.
I want to circle back to the point I made about people testing their limits. I believe these students are doing just that. I know President Ryan issued a statement saying that these signs are protected by the students’ First Amendment right, an attempt to try to:
- appease these students,
- avoid potentially looking bad in anyone’s eyes by making any sort of controversial political statement by demanding the signs be removed, and
- use a legal, not political, explanation for why the signs must stay put.
That being said, the University of Virginia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and that alone should be sufficient reason to justify the removal of the signs. There are 1,121 World Heritage Sites in the world, and only 24 in the United States. Would the Indian government allow protestors to hang “FUCK Mahatma Gandhi” signs on the Taj Mahal? Would the Philadelphia police sit back and watch someone spray paint “Ben Franklin sucks” on the walls of Independence Hall? I think not.
Demanding the removal of the signs right off the bat because of existing University guidelines for student decorum and specific Lawn residents’ protocols (that residents must sign and adhere to) would have been a very simple solution. As a result, the signs would be gone, The Lawn would maintain its image, prospective students would not see these offensive signs while touring the University (not to mention the current students who have to pass them every day), and there would be a valid, legal backing to their removal.
I am utterly baffled as to how a few 20-somethings have been able to bully the entire Administration into not only allowing these signs to stay, but also to be protected. In her aforementioned Cavalier Daily article, Hira states, “When I spoke with Jim Ryan prior to his statements, I set three strict boundaries — firstly, he could not simplify and minimize this to a conversation about free speech. Secondly, he could not publicly condemn my sign. Thirdly, he must acknowledge the truth and lived realities of the people who built and were exploited by this University currently and historically.”
My jaw dropped when I read this. How does she, an undergraduate student, justify setting ‘strict boundaries’ with the President of the University? Who does she think she is? If I were a student living on The Lawn right now, I cannot imagine hanging such a controversial sign in the first place, but I especially cannot fathom having the audacity to demand that the President protect my sign publicly. These students should certainly be able to speak their minds, but they have done so in an extremely offensive manner that damages the image and reputation of the University, and on a deeper level, upsets the alumni (most probably costing the University millions in revoked donation promises), and causes negative publicity that likely deters potential students from attending the University in the future.
I suppose that may be the goal of Hira and company – to spread the word that the University is an evil, violent, place that no one should attend. It pains me that these are the students whose voices the Administration are currently hearing and defending. The students and alumni who love the University to our core are the ones being silenced.
There is no way to erase the past month and a half. The signs have been up, protected on The Lawn’s doors, and we cannot change that. But, enough is enough. I have heard that the plan is to remove these signs for the next school year. I do not see the logic behind that decision. The signs’ statements have been made and their presence on The Lawn will do far more harm than good over the next ten months.
Something that has not yet come to fruition are the building name changes, the statue removals and the “contextualization” of Thomas Jefferson that the Board of Visitors voted to enact on September 11th.
To this, I again must reply: is this productive? Who is this helping? Does anyone truly feel safer on Grounds because of it? I would pose this question to any students who requested these changes: could you have told me a year ago about J. L. M. Curry, George Rogers Clark, Frank Hume or Henry Withers, and what these men did that was offensive? Do you genuinely feel threatened and upset walking into Clark Hall?
I am not saying this to imply that these men did nothing wrong in their pasts. Rather, I believe that changes are just being requested now because people want to see how far they can push their political and personal priorities. Additionally, I feel the renaming of buildings and the removal of statues do not legitimately change a student’s day to day experience at the University. These changes also
require a lot of time and money that in my opinion could be used to instead make a real difference – whether that be in the form of donations to organizations or policies created at the University itself.
Finally, I want to address the “contextualization” of Thomas Jefferson. Although the specifics of this “contextualization” remain vague, I anticipate a plaque reading “slaveholder” or something along those lines will be added to the Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda. Mr. Jefferson possesses one of the most impressive resumés of all time; to emphasize the fact that he was a slaveholder just seems pointless. In 2020, we are all fully aware that slavery was a sickening
practice. Unfortunately, in the late 1700s to early 1800s when Jefferson was alive, slavery was commonplace. This certainly does not excuse the practice in any way, but should at least prove that Jefferson should be judged by the societal norms at the time.
As previously stated, anyone who knows anything about Thomas Jefferson knows that he owned slaves. Adding a plaque or any similar contextualization just points out an obvious fact. The “logic” of this BOV decision could be applied to any historical figure of note who had habits or frailties that today are deemed
offensive. Literally almost every statue in America would have to be “contextualized” with plaques admonishing the historical person’s behavior as judged by 21st century moral criteria.
We all grew up hearing that “those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them”. The takeaway of this for me was always more about learning from history’s mistakes and less about the potential to repeat them. I took HIAF 2002, Modern African History, with Professor John Mason at UVA. In this class, he taught us about the history of UVA. He told us in a very matter-of-fact tone that the University was built largely in part by slaves, and that that is
something that will never change. He did not say it in an aggressive or upset manner, rather, in a way that implied nothing we do today can erase that. That brings me to understanding history’s mistakes. No plaque will take away the suffering of those slaves 200 years ago. Instead, we all know the mistakes of our ancestors and should celebrate how very far this country has come in these last 200 years.
Anyone who is fighting UVA today because slaves helped build the University 200+ years ago will simply never be happy on American soil. So much of this country was built by slaves, as were various other Western countries. Slavery is a stain on the history of this earth, but the stain is a permanent one. We can either acknowledge its historical evil and appreciate its conclusion or make the stain bigger by continually aggravating it.
In her Cavalier Daily article on September 18th, Aliyah White wrote “I have to be honest — I do not think there is a perfect way to make up for the past. …Empty gestures mean nothing in a country built on the backs of others.” Aliyah is stating just what I fear – that she will never be happy at UVA and that these changes the Board has promised to enact are “empty gestures” that will not improve anything in her mind. I fear that we have gone backward and are no longer learning history’s mistakes, appreciating how different life is today and how far America has come since 1776, while hoping for an even better future. We have gone back in time and are focusing on the wrongs of our ancestors, which no one today can change. It genuinely scares and saddens me to think that people will never feel content, no matter how many policies and changes are enacted to attempt to make up for our country’s past wrongdoings.
In conclusion, I request that you:
- Remove the offensive signs on The Lawn, while encouraging the students living in those rooms to practice their right to free speech in a productive manner,
- Consider how much good renaming buildings and removing statues will do, while also considering if the time and money spent to do this would be better spent making donations to relevant organizations, forming diversity councils, etc., and
- Decide against contextualizing Mr. Jefferson. Anyone attending his University should know his past.
hank you for reading and thoroughly considering what I have said in this letter. I, too, have a right to exercise free speech.