Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia and Governor Youngkin

By Alex Chediak Published on July 8, 2022

Many know Thomas Jefferson by the Declaration of Independence. Or as the third President of the United States. But Jefferson is also the founder of the University of Virginia (UVa). He was deeply committed to public education, seeing a tight relationship between an educated people and the maintenance of our God-endowed liberties. In recent years UVa has faced heat over its ties to Jefferson and slavery.

Ironically, the state’s 2021 governor race came down to education. Mr. Youngkin only pulled ahead only when he embraced the frustration of parents with their public schools.

Jefferson and Education

Jefferson was committed to the ideals of learning and to the free expression of ideas. We see it in his understanding of our unalienable rights: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But it comes across even more in his letters, in quotes like this:

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

Jefferson thought that an educated public was the best bulwark against tyranny. Another pithy quote: “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”

What good is a free press — Jefferson also inspired the Bill of Rights — unless people can read critically, weighing the merits of different ideas? To this end, Jefferson supported using public funds for education. He supported extending such benefits to the university level for promising students.

It makes sense that Jefferson would establish a public university.

UVa and Jefferson 

A statue of Thomas Jefferson lies at the Rotunda of UVa, representing the heart of the university. In August 2017, the statue was vandalized with graffiti. This was a couple weeks after the infamous Charlottesville rally where neo-Nazis flung racial slurs about minorities. The official rally occurred in Emancipation Park, known formerly as Lee Park, after Confederate leader Robert E. Lee. The park contains a large statue of Mr. Lee. Those rallying wanted to keep the statue in the park. But City Council had voted to sell it.

The night before this rally, the same neo-Nazi groups marched on UVa, which is in Charlottesville. They marched around the Jefferson statue. The symbolism is confusing because this was supposed to be about the Lee statue.

Anyway, this was taking place against the backdrop of discussions about the future of both Confederate monuments and other symbols of the slavery era. For some, this included Jefferson, since he owned slaves.

So, the Jefferson statue gets vandalized. They clean it up. A few weeks later, student activists shroud the Jefferson statue in black. UVa’s president, Teresa Sullivan, responds. She says the black shroud over Jefferson is not going to fly. The protesters’ have a right to express their grief, she says, over the recent neo-Nazi events in town (the KKK had also hosted an event in July). Mr. Jefferson had a “vexing history,” Sullivan writes. He was a passionate advocate for liberty and human rights. He was also a slave owner. As for this history, she wrote, “we continue to learn from it through open dialogue and civil discourse.”

Fast forward to today. The Robert E. Lee statue in town is gone. What about Jefferson? His statue was vandalized again in 2018, but has remained. Jim Ryan, the university’s current president, has pledged “as long as I am president, the University of Virginia will not walk away from Thomas Jefferson.”

Youngkin and UVa 

Frustration with race-related instruction in public schools animated voters heading into last November’s Virginia election. Upon entering office, Governor Youngkin issued an executive order that led to the Virginia DOE walking back its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training. They’ve now put in place new training that emphasizes our common humanity, regardless of skin color. It includes lines like “Most of all, every one of us is made in the image of our creator.” While some find the mention of a creator to be inappropriate, the Declaration of Independence does the same.

The Governor has appointed four new members to the Board of Visitors, the group that oversees the state’s public university system. That signals Youngkin is looking for big changes. An internal source tells me the Governor is after “more real free speech, intellectual diversity, and maybe an end to DEI requirements for hiring and promotion.” That’s consistent with Mr. Youngkin’s call that college presidents make political diversity in hiring and free speech on campus higher priorities.

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Those recently appointed include Bert Ellis Jr., who currently serves as chair of the Jefferson Council. The Jefferson Council was created in 2021 as a group of UVa alumni. Their mission is to promote an academic environment based on open dialogue and to preserve the legacy of Thomas Jefferson.

Ellis has been critical of the University of Virginia’s current leadership. He says new Board appointments represent “our only opportunity to change/reverse the path to Wokeness that has overtaken our entire University.” Ellis wants UVa to be a place “where education and merit are the managing principles.”

Youngkin has also appointed five new members to the Virginia Board of Education. This group sets statewide curriculum standards, high school graduation requirements, and establishes state testing and assessment programs. These appointments include Suparna Dutta. Ms. Dutta, a mother residing in Fairfax County, is known for having sued her school board.

Sued and won. Earlier this year a federal judge ruled that Fairfax County school officials broke the law by changing admissions requirements at the nation’s top public school to deliberately reduce the number of Asian-American students enrolled.

The name of that school? Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ).

 

Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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