The statue of Thomas Jefferson on the north side of the Rotunda Sanjay Suchak

The Board of Visitors has unanimously endorsed the Ryan administration’s broad outline to achieve racial equity, remedy problematic monuments and institutional names, and put the University of Virginia’s most prominent statue of Thomas Jefferson in a fuller historical context.

The September 11 vote came 100 days after UVA President James E. Ryan (Law ’92) impaneled a three-person Racial Equity Task Force, encouraging it to move fast and think boldly in offering recommendations. That was in June, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, an event that caused racial tensions around the country and at UVA to snap.

Even so, both Ryan and the task force members say the reforms were a long time coming. “Yes, perhaps the most recent trigger was the murder of George Floyd and a whole summer of other caught-on-video illustrations of continuing police brutality and anti-Black racism in this country,” says task force member Ian H. Solomon, dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. “Our report does a pretty good job of saying that none of these issues are new. We document 50 years of these issues being raised” at UVA.

Indeed, the issues concerning UVA’s “historic landscape,” the phrase used to encompass institutional names and memorials, have percolated for some time. In advance of the vote, Ryan and his top vice presidents prepared a memorandum for the BOV, highlighting the direction they planned to take. The portion devoted to the Racial Equity Task Force’s recommendations took up five of the document’s 17 pages. The rest concerned historic landscape, the more concrete and immediate Board to-do items. They were also the ones that required Board approval; the preliminary contours of a racial equity strategy did not. There, the administration simply sought, and got, Board affirmation.

Jefferson in Context

The Board approved five historic landscape matters: three related to Confederate memorials on Grounds; one seeking removal of a statue celebrating George Rogers Clark as a subjugator of American Indians; and a proposal to contextualize the Thomas Jefferson statue on the north plaza of the Rotunda, facing University Avenue.

“People hear, ‘contextualize Jefferson,’ and they think, well, all we want to do is put up the fact that he was a slave owner, but that’s not actually the case at all,” Ryan told Virginia Magazine. He describes UVA’s founder as “an outsized version of the human condition,” both in his soaring achievements and “the inconsistency between his professed ideals and how he lived his life.”

The Board memo alludes to the words of Jefferson biographer Annette Gordon-Reed and Jefferson himself, saying: “As with all historical figures, including those who are honored for their enduring accomplishments, ideas, or contributions, we should not shy away from telling their whole stories—telling the bitter with the sweet and following the truth, wherever it might lead.”

Of all the representations of Jefferson on Grounds, University leaders selected the most intriguing to augment with a public explainer of his life. The 1910 sculpture on the Rotunda’s north plaza presents an allegorical Jefferson, holding the scroll of the Declaration of Independence while standing atop the Liberty Bell, which four angels flank, including one representing “Equality” and holding a tablet inscribed with different religions’ names for the deity, including “God-Jehovah,” in tribute to Jefferson’s authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Not lost on UVA officials is the dark irony that, of all sites, that particular Jefferson became the center of the August 2017 clash between students and neo-Nazis chanting anti-Semitic epithets.

Seceding from the Confederacy

The Racial Equity Task Force recommended UVA remove all symbols honoring the Confederacy, though it didn’t catalogue which ones. The administration memo to the BOV identified three: removing Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry from the name of the School of Education and Human Development; deleting the “Withers” from the School of Law’s Withers-Brown Hall; and either rededicating or removing the Whispering Wall on the plaza between Monroe and Newcomb halls, a marble memorial to Confederate soldier Frank Hume.

“Our built environment should not celebrate the Confederacy or honor those whose primary legacy was to promote or protect slavery or dissolve our country,” says the BOV memo.

Of the three honorees, only Henry Malcolm Withers (Law 1870) has any direct connection to UVA. The Confederate soldier and outspoken proponent of white supremacy and the South’s Lost Cause narrative attended the law school for two years. His name got affixed to the law school’s Brown Hall in 1984, fulfilling a condition of his late daughter’s $3 million bequest for a scholarship fund. The Withers name drew instant objection but no redress for nearly 40 years.

In similar fashion, the education school adopted Curry’s name in exchange for John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s founding gift of $100,000 in 1905. Curry, a renowned champion of public education who had died two years before, favored free education for white and Black children, but not on equal terms, reflecting his problematic history as a slave owner, Confederate soldier-statesman and white supremacist.

Hume never attended UVA, but his two sons did. They donated the Whispering Wall in his honor and with an all-caps tribute to his service to the Confederacy. The BOV resolution leaves open whether UVA should rededicate the memorial or remove it. It’s a legal question, University Counsel Timothy J. Heaphy (Col ’86, Law ’91) says. The University will need to work with state authorities under Virginia’s statue statutes as well as review the underlying gift agreements.

The George Rogers Clark statue, “Conqueror of the Northwest,” celebrating the Revolutionary War general’s violent exploits against Native Americans, is subject to similar legal considerations—and to practical ones, notably its gargantuan scale and massive granite base. The Board resolution in essence says, We support removing it, but tell us what you plan to do with it and what it will cost. Clark (older brother to the Lewis and Clark expedition’s William Clark) has no connection to UVA, having died the year before its founding. The sculpture sits on University land across from the Corner.

Changing Namers

Historic landscape debates have intensified over the last several years, not just at Virginia but throughout the South, the Ivy League and most elite universities. This fall’s Board action hardly exhausts the possibilities for other changes to Grounds. The Ryan memo in passing foreshadows the coming debate about whether the main library should continue to honor UVA’s first president, Edwin A. Alderman, whose bold leadership included aggressive promotion of eugenics.  

In preparation for that and other fermenting controversies, the memo to the Board highlights changes coming to UVA’s commemorative procedures. The reforms start with a call to enforce existing policies that say philanthropic naming rights are supposed to expire after 75 years, and honorific ones, those awarded by the University itself, after 25. That would shift the longstanding presumption that commemorations last forever absent University intervention. Having them time out automatically, the memo argues, would reduce the controversies in which the University is compelled “to sit in judgment of those in the past” and allow for “continuous renewal of our Grounds.”

The administration plans to reconstitute the committee in charge of commemorations. The prescription calls for expanding its membership beyond a circle of top UVA officials to include faculty, students, and alumni, whom the Alumni Association would recommend.

Bigger Picture, Longer Term

As fraught as the topic may be, in some respects the landscape changes are the easier part of racial equity, or at least easier to cross off a list. The plan’s ambitions extend further.

“Instead of looking at this as a simple box-checking exercise, we should stay focused on the ultimate goal of creating and sustaining a community where everyone has a chance to succeed, to grow and to lead,” Ryan said at the September Board meeting. His words echoed the task force’s definition of racial equity: “a system in which racial identity neither predicts nor determines one’s access, success, nor influence within the University of Virginia—where people of any racial background have an equal probability of thriving.”

In addition to approving the five historic landscape proposals, the Board affirmed 11 propositions for achieving racial equity. They track the recommendations of the task force—but with an important difference. While the task force met its charge to think boldly and, by extension, ask big, the Board resolution avoided specifics, deferring to University leadership to determine the particular steps, time horizons, funding sources and ways to measure success. Even in outline form, the initiatives it endorsed still represent profound change. Among the highlights:

  • Student diversity: The University will work to build a student population that “better reflects” state and national racial and socioeconomic demographics. The how and when will fall to Provost M. Elizabeth “Liz” Magill (Law ’95), working with the just-hired vice provost for enrollment, a newly created position.
  • Faculty diversity: The University has committed to doubling the number of underrepresented faculty by 2030. Ryan will work with Magill in coming up with a plan “in the coming months,” the memo says.
  • Anti-racism training: Task force member Kevin G. McDonald, UVA’s vice president for diversity, equity, inclusion and community partnerships, will collaborate with Arts & Sciences Dean Ian Baucom to develop educational programs, including leadership training, around racial equity and anti-racism.
  • Police practices: UVA will create the equivalent of a citizen advisory board, made up of students, faculty, staff and community members. University police will add a diversity manager to help with recruitment. UPD will install in-car cameras. These are largely preventive measures, not in response to any incidents of police abuse. “I don’t think that we have a problem with that at UVA,” says University attorney Heaphy, though, he acknowledges not all share that view.
  • Endow Woodson: The task force report calls for making UVA’s Carter G. Woodson Institute “the preeminent department of African-American and African Diaspora studies.” The Board agreed in principle but did not make a specific dollar commitment.

That was a theme running through the administration memo and, consequently, the Board action. Leadership gave the task force recommendations nearly complete backing, but the philosophical kind, not the financial variety—at least not yet. And not that the task force didn’t ask. The report called for close to $1 billion in spending: $150 million for immediate needs, $650 million earmarked as “quasi-endowment” and $150 million raised “collaboratively through incentive matching funds.”

The task force’s Solomon is candid with his disappointment that the University didn’t make some preliminary funding commitments, which he says would greatly aid his efforts to recruit faculty to the Batten School. “To say, ‘Look what our university has set aside for this’ would have been very powerful,” he says. “I now need to have a more complicated story.”

Not lost on him or the other members of the task force is that the Board took up the racial equity strategic plan the same day it reviewed the University’s COVID-adjusted austerity budget, which made across-the-board and permanent cuts to University spending.

“You will see some things in motion quickly,” McDonald says. For other efforts, “it’s going to be prudent for us to be a bit more thoughtful and intentional. … They might just take a little bit longer.”

Alumni Interests

The broad-brush racial equity plan touches the Alumni Association in at least a few ways. First is the new role it would have in recommending members to UVA’s Committee on Names. Second, and perhaps more profound, the Ryan memo expresses the hope the Association can step up to create scholarships for the descendants of the enslaved African Americans who built and maintained UVA through the Civil War. As a public university, UVA can’t itself direct financial aid based on race. The Alumni Association already has the infrastructure for doing so through the Ridley Scholarship Fund, a program of merit-based scholarships to attract the country’s top African American students to UVA.

“We’re looking into what’s possible for descendants of enslaved laborers and looking to other schools who may have a similar model in place,” says Lily E. West (Darden ’12), the Alumni Association’s interim CEO.

Such a gesture of reparations would go a long way, says School of Architecture associate professor Barbara Brown Wilson, the third member of the Racial Equity Task Force. In her work as an urban planner involved in community outreach, she says she has learned, “You cannot look forward without addressing the trauma of the past.”

Left out of the Ryan plan was the task force’s call to end legacy admissions, the preference given to the children of alumni. The argument is that it only perpetuates the lack of diversity of earlier student generations. Ryan doesn’t see it that way. Legacy admissions “has been part of the intergenerational experience of UVA that is one of UVA’s strengths,” he says. “It seems like an odd time to remove any consideration of legacy status when our alumni base is more diverse than ever.”