Letters to the Editor
Winter 2019 Issue
I absolutely appreciate the candor and openness in the latest UVA magazine. While the magazine, as is common with other alumni magazines, was full of the usual positive stories about successful alumni, upcoming projects and winning teams, it gave a frank portrayal of disappointments and unsettling news. The issue honestly highlighted that UVA’s [U.S. News & World Report] rating worsened this year, and it is no longer a top-25 school—much to my chagrin. The magazine also highlighted a lawsuit about the UVA Hospital regarding harsh methods to collect fees. It also provided various perspectives (not always positive) on UVA’s founder. I greatly appreciate the transparency and honesty, as I felt the magazine gave a full picture of the ugly along with the good and the bad. This is appropriate, considering the Thomas Jefferson saying that we should “follow truth as the only safe guide.” I look forward to reading further stories about UVA, even if the stories do not paint the prettiest picture. Wahoowa.
Noah Kaufman (Com ’99)
There were two articles in the Winter Issue that I thought were particularly noteworthy and that related to each other across the decades: “Our Front Porch Stoop” provided extraordinary insights into the African American experience at UVA in a manner that was not visible to me as a Caucasian law student from 1979–1982. Thanks to Denise Watson for capturing a community during the last part of the last century. Richard Gard’s article on “The Jefferson Progression” likewise nicely captured the way in which Jefferson’s star has risen, set and then reset in the constellation of our nation’s Founders, and the critical role race issues have played in that development. Fawn Brodie’s 1974 psychohistory was certainly controversial when it first was published. Since then, additional scholarship, combined with scientific discoveries involving DNA, have made it possible reasonably to conclude that Jefferson had a longtime likely monogamous relationship with his first wife’s half sister. Implicit in Mr. Gard’s article is that makes Jefferson an even more interesting, if not enigmatic, person. As the fight for racial equality continues into the 21st century, these two articles are positive contributions to what needs to be a continuing dialogue. Thanks again for two incredibly interesting articles.
Jim Petrila (Law ’82)
It was disappointing to open the Winter 2019 issue and to read the UDigest story about the annual U.S. News & World Report higher education sweepstakes (“UVA takes a tumble in U.S. News’ 2020 rankings”), particularly in the context of the excellent cover story about Thomas Jefferson’s evolving reputation. While it was somewhat heartening to read University President James E. Ryan’s gentle demurral about rankings in general, devoting two columns to the “Best Colleges” list seems to legitimize a troubling cultural phenomenon that has been more of a successful marketing ploy for a struggling publisher than a valid barometer of quality in higher education. The list has been roundly criticized for an impenetrable methodology that favors institutional wealth, subverts enrollment practices, and elevates status anxiety among parents and students—to the point where the quantitative difference between being ranked No. 1 and No. 4 is infinitesimal, and possibly arbitrary.
I applaud President Ryan and the University’s “Great and Good University” strategic plan for 2030, particularly for its emphasis on attracting and supporting first-generation and low-income students. However, to call the U.S. News rankings “sought-after” seems to undermine the University’s aspirations. The true test of a great university will not be found in countenancing rankings that perpetuate the status quo, but rather in breaking from the pack with imagination and courage to ensure equity and access to future generations whose task it will be to make comprehensible a world awash with unprecedented change. That would be a fitting story for Stage 5 of Jefferson’s complex legacy.
Mark L. Kelly (Col ’80)
The Jefferson Progression
Over my morning cuppa, I devoured your review on Jefferson scholarship. I immediately felt the need to drop you a line to tell you not only how impressed I am with the piece, but also how delighted I am to know that there is such thorough work being done on Mr. Jefferson’s life. It makes me proud that the University is willing to showcase this diversity in scholarship and perspective and look with open eyes, mind and heart at the reality of who TJ was. As you point out in the final paragraph, this understanding is still evolving.
Rosie Richardson (Col ’82)
I want to compliment and thank Mr. Gard for his clear and thoughtful article. As a pre-’90 alum, I experienced Stage 3 in its full bloom: Malone’s The Sage of Monticello was published and very much discussed when I was at the University. In fact, I instigated a course in the architecture program, “Theories of Jefferson,” briefly held at Hotel D, to examine the conceptual underpinnings of his designs for the Lawn. I found Mr. Gard’s discussions of subsequent exhumations, both of corpses and of slave accommodations detected in the surviving gardens, worthy successors and antipodes to our Stage 3 idolatry.
As a white graduate who has undertaken in the past few years a journey of deeper understanding of the truer nature of race in this country, I can no longer look at beautiful images of the purple shadows of the Lawn without seeing, simultaneously, that nearly every brick and column was put there by slaves. I appreciate Mr. Gard’s challenge, to adequately communicate in this short form the abject evil and brutality of slavery.
My appreciation for Mr. Gard’s article culminates at his articulation of Stage 5. In my own church, on the west side of Chicago, some of our congregants insisted that we take down a mural that included an image of Mr. Jefferson, along with other heroes of human progress, because they did not want to have to look at a slave owner every Sunday. At the same time we recognized that our own church would not exist, free of state control and free to assert at times controversially progressive positions, absent Mr. Jefferson’s long campaign for the disentanglement of church and state in the Virginia Statehouse.
We need the both/and of Mr. Gard’s fifth stage to get to an adult understanding of our history.
I look forward to other open and frank discussions of Mr. Jefferson, for good and evil, in future editions of Virginia Magazine. We as alumni owe it to our founder to look in all directions, even at him, with eyes wide open.
Eric Davis (Arch ’83)
Oak Park, Illinois
I was disturbed and annoyed with the Winter 2019 edition’s article titled “The Jefferson Progression,” which highlighted books that appeared intent on denigrating the father of our University. It is easy for ivory-tower commentators who have no particular record of contributions to our republic to look back 200 years and criticize a person who helped create this great nation—but whose personal life reflected the shortcomings of the culture and social philosophies of the times into which they were born, raised and educated. The books used as a basis for the article have added nothing of importance to our national fabric, but seemingly consist of cheap shots at someone who is no longer capable of retort. To blame Mr. Jefferson for the isolated actions of certain individual students is truly absurd.
Don Slesnick (Col ’65)
Coral Gables, Florida
The article by Richard Gard continues what for the past quarter-century seems to be the obligatory self-flagellation by many of the University’s professors and administrators decrying Thomas Jefferson’s legacy. Mr. Jefferson’s prodigious accomplishments as author of the Declaration of Independence, minister to France, secretary of state, vice president, president and founder of UVA continue to get short shrift. Count me among the millions who have grown tired of the endless denigration of one of the preeminent Founding Fathers.
I am a 1974 alumnus and was a history major. Back then, outstanding history professors like Mssrs. Harbaugh, Peterson and Gaston taught us the heroic accomplishments of Southern Founding Fathers like Jefferson, Washington, Madison and Monroe while acknowledging the moral scourge of slavery. This was because, unlike the revisionist historians of today, they did not judge these great men by the ethical standards of the then-late 20th century.
I am flabbergasted that Mr. Gard makes no mention whatsoever of the [2001 Report of the Scholars Commission], chaired by UVA law professor Robert F. Turner and composed of 13 preeminent historians, that debunked the Sally Hemings/Thomas Jefferson relationship. The likely father was Jefferson’s younger brother Randolph, who lived at Monticello when Hemings was there. How was this not referenced?
Thank you, Mr. Jefferson, for all that you did for our country and for founding my alma mater. I remain steadfast in my “childish hero worship” of Thomas Jefferson that [historian Annette] Gordon-Reed mocks in Mr. Gard’s article.
Thomas M. Neale (Col ’74)
As I was preparing yesterday on Jefferson for a course I teach on the early republic here at Gettysburg College, I happened on Richard Gard’s “The Jefferson Progression.” It is a fine, nuanced assessment of currents in Jefferson scholarship, nicely complementing Alan Taylor’s “Hero or Villain, Both and Neither” (Winter 2018). What especially hit home for me was Gard’s comment about Merrill Peterson, whose impressive work on Jefferson attracted me to graduate study at UVA back in the early 1970s. Gard hits the nail on the head about Peterson. The very idea that Jefferson could have had an intimate relationship with a slave was not discussable in Peterson’s seminar, because, as he saw it, it was out of character for someone who was thinking big thoughts and engaging in important political battles. Not addressing the issue, and not taking Fawn Brodie’s work seriously, was an unfortunate blot on Peterson’s record. To be sure, we’re all guilty of assuming things rather than investigating in areas where we’re satisfied we know best, so I’m reluctant to let that be the last word on Peterson. I have only warm thoughts about my graduate alma mater and I did want to let you know I very much liked the article. It is a keeper.
Michael J. Birkner (Grad ’73, ’81)
‘Our Front Porch Stoop’
Thanks for your recent article, “Our Front Porch Stoop” (Black Bus Stop or BBS). I had to take time to respond as I reflected on my days as a graduate student during the late 1960s—categorizing me as a UVA “trailblazer.”
My late husband and I did our undergraduate work together at Virginia State College (now University) from 1956 to 1960—he in mathematics and I in biology education. With the encouragement of my mother and the persistence of my husband, [he and I] decided to go to graduate school together at UVA. We had gone through many of the horrors of the civil rights movement while undergraduates but decided to explore what it would be like at UVA anyway.
While there, we had no bus stop site as a refuge or sanctuary. At times we felt like a diminishing trickle on campus. We lived in a one-bedroom basement apartment near the campus. When we walked down the steps from the parking lot to our drab apartment, we felt we had entered our “sanctuary of togetherness.”
Even though I am now retired and in my 82nd year on earth, I have experienced many exhilarating rewards (and awards) as a result of my academic endeavors there at UVA, in spite of the painful memories as a frightened and often humiliated “pioneer.” In June 1964, I was fortunate to receive a master of education degree in science. My late husband [Dr. Lawrence Mozell Clark Sr.] received his master of education in mathematics in August 1964 and remained on the UVA campus to earn his doctor of education in June 1967. Our joint preparation at Virginia State and at UVA both helped to successfully prepare us for the “world of hard knocks”—without what must have been the comfort of a BBS.
Irene Reynolds Clark (Educ ’64)
Raleigh, North Carolina
While I enjoyed the article about “the Black Bus Stop,” I was disappointed that the author casually tossed in a very questionable slander against the faculty. The offending sentence claims that, among the many topics black students conversed about at that spot, “It was where they exchanged information on what professors seemed bent on flunking the black students.” It is an old principle of argument that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Yet in this case, no supporting evidence is offered, no follow-up questions are asked, no attribution is made and no response is reported from any faculty member about this inflammatory claim.
I was a student at Virginia in the early 1970s and a reporter at WVIR-TV in Charlottesville throughout the mid-’70s covering city and University news, including race-related topics. I never heard even a whisper that any UVA professors were “bent on flunking the black students.” There were certainly many professors who were quite tough in expectations, and that was sometimes a big shock to first-year students who had earned A’s and B’s without too much trouble in their high school classes. This was as true for white students as it perhaps was also for some blacks. For jumping in with the claim that some professors were out to flunk the black students in their classes, however, the author and the magazine editors should either offer convincing evidence or make an apology to the faculty.
David Burns (Col ’74)
[Winter 2019 Letters]
I was disappointed to learn that the Barringer Wing of the University of Virginia Medical Center was renamed. There are so many buildings, wings or lines of services that could have received the name of Dr. Francis Collins. It is inappropriate to take away this recognition afforded Dr. Barringer for his many contributions to the University and most importantly the founding of the University Hospital. You may officially change the name, but it will always be referred to as the Barringer Wing by me and the thousands of medical students and personnel who worked at the hospital in the last 100-plus years.
Bonna Rackman Miller (Nurs ’71)
Wilmington, North Carolina
I was saddened to learn of Professor Paul Gaston’s passing, but thoroughly enjoyed Carrie Madren’s note in the Fall 2019 magazine.
Professor Gaston was a consummate Southern gentleman with a progressive leaning. As Ms. Madren points out, he was not ashamed to question many of the older, traditional Southern views on slavery. I continue to have a recollection of some 60 years ago when some of my fellow classmates became unhappy with the professor’s remarks and all of a sudden I heard one loud thud followed by a few more thuds. Some students became unhappy with Professor’s lecture and began dropping their books on the floor (no backpacks/book bags back then—we toted our books under arm). Unfazed, Professor engaged the students with his calm, Socratic approach. I was initially stunned and then impressed by the positive exchange of thoughts between Professor and students, with neither retreating.
If you wanted to enroll in one of Professor Gaston’s classes—which generally were limited to about 30 seats—you needed to get in line early at Memorial Gym to make the cut. RIP, Professor.
Joel J. Goldman (Com ’62)
Winter 2019 Corrections
The story “The Jefferson Progression” mischaracterized the DNA test generally accepted as establishing Thomas Jefferson’s likely paternity of Sally Hemings’ children. The test used DNA of the descendants of Jefferson’s paternal uncle Field, not that of Jefferson’s direct line.
The graduation year for Gregory Swanson (Law ’51) was listed incorrectly in the story “Our Front Porch Stoop.”
Andrew Paul “Andy” Selfridge (Col ’71, Educ ’72) started three years on the UVA football team, and Frank McCue was a team physician. Selfridge’s obituary, “Recipient of Football’s ‘Crossed Sabres’ served UVA for 26 years,” contained incorrect information.