People at UVa Object to Quotes by Thomas Jefferson, the Founder of UVa
Some nights, I go to bed thinking that the world cannot get any more ridiculously politically correct.
Then, I wake up the next morning, only to discover that it can, indeed.
Back in 1819, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. His goal was to create an education facility with a broader range of courses than the College of William and Mary, which he said was mired in religion and didn’t offer enough lessons in the sciences. The school was built on land that he could overlook from his hilltop mansion, Monticello and he designed the architecture of the original buildings himself.
Of the curriculum, he said,
“This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
So it seems only logical the university president there today would use a quote from the college’s founder when writing to the students. Apparently not, because hundreds of people got butthurt and their “reason” did absolutely nothing to “combat it.”
The President of UVa, Theresa Sullivan, penned an encouraging later in the hopes of quelling the political division on her campus. She said in an email:
“Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that University of Virginia students ‘are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes. I encourage today’s U.Va. students to embrace that responsibility.” (source)
And about 500 people read that email and somehow became outraged.
Yep, you read that correctly.
It all started when an assistant professor of psychology, Noelle Hurd, decided that a reply with the intention “to start a conversation with our administration regarding ways to be more inclusive” was in order. So, keep in mind, this wasn’t just a bunch of naive kids getting offended. This crybaby collection also included educators. (And I use that term loosely.)
Hurd wrote an email signed by almost 500 staff and students. Here is that letter, emphasis mine.
Dear President Sullivan,
We are writing in response to the e-mails you have sent out to the university community in regards to civility in the current political climate. We appreciate you taking the time to acknowledge the issues facing our community and to encourage unity and inclusivity. We also wanted to take the opportunity to provide you with some constructive and respectful feedback regarding your messages.
We are incredibly disappointed in the use of Thomas Jefferson as a moral compass. Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves. Other memorable Jefferson quotes include that Blacks are “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind,” and “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” Though we realize that some members of our university community may be inspired by quotes from Jefferson, we also realize that many of us are deeply offended by attempts on behalf of our administration to guide our moral behavior through their use.
In the spirit of inclusivity, we would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it. For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotes undermines the messages of unity, equality, civility, and inclusivity that you are attempting to convey. We understand desires to maintain traditions at this university, but when these traditions threaten progress and reinforce notions of exclusion, it is time to rethink their utility. Thank you for your time. (source)
Wah, wah, wah.
Another professor, Lawrie Balfour, said that quoting Jefferson (again, the dude who started the University) because of recent incidents of “identity-related hate speech.” Balfour said:
“I’ve been here 15 years. Again and again, I have found that at moments when the community needs reassurance and Jefferson appears, it undoes I think the really important work that administrators and others are trying to do.” (source)
But unlike most educators these days, President Sullivan didn’t buckle one bit, probably sending 500 people scurrying to their safe spaces or hurriedly looking for a new
daycare university to attend.
While she was nicer than I would have been (suck it up, you big babies!) Sullivan responded firmly that while she welcomed the open discourse, she was smacking down their woes. (Again, emphasis mine.)
Words have power. To quote any person is to acknowledge the potency of that person’s words. In my message last week, I agreed with Mr. Jefferson’s words expressing the idea that UVA students would help to lead our Republic. He believed that 200 years ago, and I believe it today. Quoting Jefferson (or any historical figure) does not imply an endorsement of all the social structures and beliefs of his time, such as slavery and the exclusion of women and people of color from the University.
We respond to the challenges of our times, and equity and inclusion are urgent leadership issues today. UVA is still producing leaders for our Republic, and from backgrounds that Mr. Jefferson could not have anticipated in 1825, when he wrote the words that I quoted. Today’s leaders are women and men, members of all racial and ethnic groups, members of the LGBTQ community, and adherents of all religious traditions. All of them belong at today’s UVA, whose founder’s most influential and most quoted words were “. . . all men are created equal.” Those words were inherently contradictory in an era of slavery, but because of their power, they became the fundamental expression of a more genuine equality today.
It’s about damn time someone in education did something other than coddling those adult babies. Personally, I commend Dr. Sullivan for providing a dose of reality.