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Two commissions take on a complicated landscape

Statue of Thomas Jefferson
Cole Geddy

In a reform of how the University of Virginia goes about naming and renaming buildings and memorials, the Ryan administration has restructured and replaced the committee in charge of making recommendations.

The group, which President James E. Ryan (Law ’92) and Provost M. Elizabeth Magill (Law ’95) announced in February, will take up some of UVA’s most charged issues, including adding a fuller historical context to the most prominent Thomas Jefferson statue on Grounds and confronting the legacies of past eras, whose honored namesakes included proponents of the Confederacy and eugenics, the pseudoscience of selective human breeding.

There are passionate views on those topics across the spectrum of alumni opinion. So it was that the reconstituted naming committee was announced together with the unveiling of a new committee to draft a set of free speech principles, intended to safeguard ideological diversity at the University.

The naming committee changes expand what had been largely an internal operation overseen by the Office of Advancement, the University’s fundraising arm, and composed almost exclusively of UVA’s executive leadership. This revamped committee now has a broader base, including alumni representatives, and a more scholarly orientation.

English professor Michael F. Suarez, director of UVA’s Rare Book School and a Jesuit priest, leads the naming committee with an expansive charge to evaluate what’s referred to collectively as the University’s historic landscape. Joining him are:

  • Board of Vistors member and former rector Frank M. “Rusty” Conner III (Col ’78, Law ’81), a Washington, D.C., lawyer
  • Former Alumni Association Board of Managers Chair Meredith B. Jenkins (Col ’93), the chief investment officer for Trinity Church Wall Street
  • Ryan confidant and former UVA law dean John C. Jeffries Jr. (Law ’73), the senior vice president for Advancement
  • History department chair and African American studies scholar Claudrena N. Harold
  • Civil rights and social justice history professor Kevin K. Gaines
  • Mazzen Shalaby (Col ’20), the student representative on the Board of Visitors, a Jefferson Scholar and president of the Muslim Student Association
  • Jessica M. Harris (Col ’19, Educ ’20), a fellow in the president’s office, an Echols Scholar and recipient of a prestigious Alumni Association award

The first order of business is to make recommendations about adding context to the statues on Grounds, according to Suarez. Most notable among them is the Jefferson on the public side of the Rotunda, which the BOV singled out for reframing, one of several historic landscape and racial equity action items approved in the fall.

Suarez considers the assignment “an extraordinary educational opportunity.” He envisions an effort that will “contribute to an understanding of the University’s place in the ongoing history of our democracy; it would not merely relate the triumphs of the University, but should aspire to advance a more balanced, critical, and reflective view,” he said via email.

After contextualization comes deciding the fate of the Whispering Wall, a marble memorial to Frank Hume, a Confederate soldier whose life had no direct ties to UVA. The committee will recommend whether the University should remove or rededicate the curved structure on the plaza between Monroe and Newcomb halls.

The Frank Hume memorial, also known as the Whispering Wall
Sanjay Suchak

Then comes the more deliberative undertaking of developing a set of principles and criteria for making naming and renaming decisions. The first test case for those will likely be Alderman Library, closed for renovation through spring 2023. Part of namesake Edwin A. Alderman’s drive to bring the University into the modern era during his 1904 to 1931 presidency included positioning UVA as a leader in the field of eugenics.

Robust Debate

Such contemplated actions, as well as the others the Board greenlighted in September, drew a backlash from some alumni. Reactions intensified when, around the same time but in an unrelated demonstration, at least eight Lawn residents put social justice protest signs on their doors headlined with “F*** UVA.” After the University determined it was legally constrained from removing the signs, a group of critics called on the University to reaffirm the importance of diversity of thought on Grounds across the ideological spectrum. They wanted UVA to join the nearly 80 colleges and universities that have signed on to the University of Chicago’s Statement on Principles of Free Expression. 

Ryan saw the merits of the recommendation but decided UVA should draft its own statement. “I’ve never been a fan of the idea of UVA adopting someone else’s principles, especially given UVA’s connection to the First Amendment through Madison and Jefferson,” he told Virginia Magazine.

He and Provost Magill appointed Law School vice dean and First Amendment expert Leslie Kendrick (Law ’06) to head a new Committee on Free Expression and Free Inquiry. They also appointed:

  • Joel B. Gardner (Col ’70, Law ’74), a lawyer turned investment professional and one of the most outspoken advocates for adopting the Chicago principles
  • Dean of Students Allen W. Groves (Law ’90), a former litigator and First Amendment expert
  • Kevin G. McDonald, a lawyer and UVA’s vice president for diversity and community initiatives
  • English professor and former U.S. poet laureate Rita F. Dove
  • English professor and poetry scholar Jahan Ramazani (Col ’81)
  • Former George H.W. Bush speechwriter Mary Kate Cary (Col ’85), a senior fellow at UVA’s Miller Center
  • First Amendment law professor Frederick Schauer
  • Faculty Senate Chair-Elect Susan E. Kirk (Med ’95), a physician and associate dean at the Medical School
  • Board of Visitors member John A. Griffin (Com ’85), founder of New York-based Blue Ridge Capital and a major UVA benefactor
  • Saonee Sarker, senior associate dean of the Commerce School and an information systems expert
  • Shalaby, the Board of Visitors student representative, doing double duty here and on the naming committee

Kendrick says the committee will use Chicago principles as a reference point but not a template. “The Chicago statement is the most well-known of many. A UVA statement will reflect the University’s history, its status as a public entity and its commitments as an academic institution,” she said via email. While the work of the Naming Committee will be ongoing, the Free Expression group’s assignment, as Kendrick describes it, is finite: Craft a succinct statement.

Richard Gard is the editor of Virginia Magazine.