by James A. Bacon
In the spring of 2022 University of Virginia alumnus Warren Lightfoot emailed Rector Whitt Clement, a fraternity brother, to share the experiences of a friend and friend’s daughter during a university tour. Among other negative observations about UVa, reported Lightfoot, the student tour guide had made a point of noting that the university was built on land taken from Indians, that it was built by slaves, that its plans were “stolen” from slaves, and that the University had caused little but harm to the residents of Charlottesville over 200 years. “Needless to say, my friend and his daughter were unimpressed, shocked and offended,” recounted Lightfoot, who, as a former student tour guide himself, had been proud of the institution he represented.
Clement thanked his frat brother for the email. “I have heard similar, but less disturbing, accounts. I am going to look into this — totally unacceptable.”
True to his word, Clement talked to Greg Roberts, associate vice provost of enrollment and undergraduate admission. The Office of Undergraduate Admissions coordinated with the independent, student-run Student Guide Service to brief prospective students about the university. Typically, officials with the university would meet with prospects and their parents, and then turn them over to guides for tours of dormitories, student amenities and Thomas Jefferson’s architectural masterpiece of the Lawn.
Reporting back to Lightfoot, Clement reiterated his concerns. “I have expressed my dismay about this tour guide and am told it is an isolated event and that the guide is gone. This episode is totally unacceptable. Even if the tour guide program is part of student self-governance, which I am told is the case, then they must do a lot better job in self-selection and with the content of their tours; otherwise, serious intervention and changes would be in order in my opinion.”
But by August 2022 nothing had changed. Frustrated by the lack of concrete action, Lightfoot got back in touch with Clement to say that “the nonsense with the student guides has not stopped at all.”
Clement replied: “Yep, problem in my view not fixed but Steve Farmer, [vice provost of enrollment] whose bailiwick includes tour guides, says progress is being made. UVa has hired someone to be directly responsible for overseeing this program. Run by students themselves, I have suggested paying them and then holding them accountable. Apparently just a few bad apples in the bunch. Favorable responses from exit polls are something like 96%. It should be 100%.”
Time went by. In April 2023, Lightfoot heard yet another story of inappropriate commentary during a student-guided tour, and he let Clement know about it.
It’s troubling to me that it’s still happening despite assurances that this would be fixed, and it’s remarkable to me that this report sounds eerily similar to the report of the offensive tour I gave you a year ago along with the audio from part of that tour (remember we were told that the particular “rogue” guide had been removed from the Service and that the Service had new leadership who loves and promotes UVA and that UVA would make sure that this problem was fixed). I’m not sure what to conclude now after learning this new information other than the current Administration is not only not concerned about this but also, and more importantly, either allows or encourages this.
Clement responded: “Warren — this has continued to be a huge disappointment for [me] and other board members, even if we knew that this incident were unique. Very disheartening. Steve Farmer will be following up directly.”
As is the Lightfoot-Clement correspondence testifies, University of Virginia officials have been fielding complaints for more than a year that the university-endorsed guided tours were turning off prospective students and their families. The stories cited by Lightfoot may have been anecdotal, but they were not atypical. In emails to the Jefferson Council, Vice Provost Farmer said the university acknowledges the complaints and is acting to address them. If change seems slow, it’s because the administration does not control the Student Guide Service, an independent, student-run organization, but must work collaboratively with it.
It also appears that the Ryan administration was slow to recognize the problem.
Based on his interaction with university officials, Clement was led to believe initially that 96% of Student Guide ratings were favorable and that a few “bad apples” accounted for the negative stories. But a Jefferson Council analysis of written evaluations submitted by parents and students, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), indicated that 35% in 2022 were highly negative.
The Jefferson Council had asked for “summaries, reports, or data compilations, circulated internally or for consumption elsewhere within the university, based upon the responses over the past five years.” The FOIA office responded that the no summaries or reports existed, and it provided a compilation of evaluations for only 2022 and 2023. It is not clear what basis Admissions had for informing Clement that “exit polls” showed 96% favorable ratings.
The Jefferson Council also asked for correspondence between the Office of Admissions, the Office of the President, and Rector Clement on the one hand and the Student Guides on the other. The FOIA office responded that the cost of searching the relevant records would be $9,350. The Council declined to pay the sum.
To be sure, some of the Guides’ feedback was positive. The content of some tours was not overtly political, and respondents praised individual guides. Even when the content was political, some parents appreciated the “candid” and “honest” portrayal of UVa’s distant racist past. But many on the tours were offended that guides dwelled on ancient injustices without acknowledging that the university has undergone a sea change since the 1960s. In other words, the tours were polarizing and, to the extent that they alienated a significant percentage of prospective students, they were antithetical to the aim of putting the university in the best possible light.
Bert Ellis, president emeritus of the Jefferson Council and a 2022 appointee to the Board of Visitors, shared concerns last year about the Student Guides with other board members but has been unable to get the issue on the Board agenda. The administration has chosen to work out its differences with the Student Guides quietly and behind the scenes.
Clement is optimistic that changes are coming. “I am assured that significant, measurable changes will be implemented either this summer or when the school year begins in August,” he wrote in an email. “Now having a person in place whose job is to supervise the guides and paying a stipend (I believe that is what I have been told) should reverse what we have all been hearing.”
Clement, whose term as Rector expires at the end of this month, said it is important to distinguish between historical tours and orientation tours for prospective students and their families. Different standards should be applied to the two.
“If an historical tour, then, yes, the guides should cover, within an approved script for accuracy, the good and bad about our history,” he wrote. “Tours intended for prospective students and their families should be entirely different. Each tour guide should be a strong ambassador for the University.”
In tours for prospects, Clement recommended paying guides stipends, having them stick to tighter scripts, and holding them accountable for results, as measured by observation and questionnaires. “If a tour guide cannot present the University in the best possible light, he or she should no longer be allowed to serve as a guide.”
The goal, said Clement, should be having 99.9% of prospects leaving the University with a positive impression. “Each prospect should finish the tour with a stronger desire to attend the University than his/her desire before the tour.”
In emails to the Jefferson Council, Farmer said the Admissions Office has been working over the past year to “improve the experience” of prospective students and their families. Student-led tours, he added, are an important part of that experience.
Although the University Guides have operated with little involvement with faculty or staff, it has “done a good job over the years,” Farmer said. But he concedes that the Guides have experienced “challenges” since the COVID pandemic. “We’ve received periodic complaints about their tours since the tours resumed in June 2021.”
By way of background, the upswing in complaints also coincided with the implementation of many recommendations in 2021 of the Racial Equity Task Force appointed by President Jim Ryan. Among many actions, the University removed the statue of Indian-fighter George Rogers Clark, expunged the names of past benefactors now deemed racist, constructed a memorial to enslaved laborers, expanded its Diversity, Equity & Inclusion bureaucracy, and erected historic signage informed by social-justice concerns. With minimal administrative pushback, many faculty and students have reinterpreted Thomas Jefferson as a slaveholder and rapist, and have rewritten university history to emphasize its connections to slavery, racism, segregation, eugenics and the oppression of minorities and women. This revisionist history is reflected in the Student Guides’ manual, which inductees are required to study and absorb.
Although the Guides have received compliments as well, Farmer continued, the administration has focused on addressing complaints. The Office hired an associate dean to “improve all aspects of the welcome we provide [to prospective students], including our tours,” and has increased the number of paid interns who give tours. Also, he said, “We’re engaging directly and regularly with the University Guide Service, and we’re sharing the feedback our guests are providing.”
“We’ve emphasized that our top priorities must be to welcome guests warmly, recruit great students from all walks of life, and inspire every student and family member who visits,” Farmer said. “We’ve also stressed that our tours need to recognize and respect that our guests travel long distances to visit us and that we owe them courtesy and care at every turn.”
The trick, says Farmer, is to “strike the right balance” between the administration’s priorities and upholding the tradition of student self-governance. The Admissions Office “works collaboratively with student groups to guide their efforts” rather than dictate to them, as occurs on campuses where students haven’t been as involved historically in tours.
“We believe we need to collaborate on the content of the tours with the students who are giving them,” Farmer said. “We also believe we need to collaborate with students on training and assessment. And we will continue to welcome student leadership in the training of our full-time staff, since our understanding of our current students and our relationships with them are crucial to our ability to recruit the students who will follow.”
“Fortunately, our conversations with the current leaders of the Guides have been constructive,” Farmer says, “and I’m optimistic that we’re on our way to an understanding that all parties will consider preferable to what we’ve seen in recent years.”
The Jefferson Council reached out to the Student Guides Service by email asking for an interview but has not received a response.