April 25, 2023 By Brian Coy, btc6r@virginia.edu

Portrait of University Rector Whitt Clement

Q&A: Outgoing Rector Whitt Clement Reflects on UVA’s Dramatic Change and Progress

His time on the governing board has coincided with dizzying change and growing challenges across higher education.

Whitt Clement has seen a lot in his eight years as a member of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors, which includes the last two serving as rector.

His time on the governing board has coincided with dizzying change and growing challenges across higher education – and plenty of UVA-specific issues and opportunities as well. As he prepares for his final meeting as rector in June, Clement sat down with UVA Today to reflect on the University today, and the progress he has seen.

Q. What stands out to you most from your time on the University board?

A. During this time, every institution has had to deal, to some degree, with the same set of challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, political polarization exacerbated by social media, and growing concerns about free expression on campuses. Closer to home, UVA has dealt with many serious issues, including the evolution of our honor system, a rise in public safety concerns in our region and, most notably, the November shooting that took the lives of three of our students and deeply affected many others.

We’ve also made tremendous progress. Our fine president, Jim Ryan, and his team have steered the University through uncertain times, maintaining our standing as one of the best public institutions in the nation – and one of the best values in all of higher education. Every year has brought a new class of incredibly talented and diverse students, who are eager to collaborate with some of the best faculty anywhere in the world. We have continued to serve Virginia families through UVA Health, including our expanded presence in Northern Virginia, and we continue to develop new knowledge and solve human problems through cutting-edge research. We have continued to solidify the financial standing of the University through effective management and the success of our Honor the Future capital campaign.

These eight years haven’t always been easy, but it is hard to argue with the progress over that time.

Q. Free speech is a topic of significant focus on campuses all over the nation. How has the University approached the issue in your time?

A. Every college and university is grappling with how to protect and encourage free expression inside and outside the classroom at a time when political division and social media have made it easier than ever to attack or recriminate against each other.

UVA has responded in multiple ways. First, President Ryan created a Committee on Free Expression and tasked it with formulating a statement reflecting the University’s commitment to an environment where we can all speak and exchange ideas freely. I am proud that the board unanimously approved that statement, as well as a separate statement developed in cooperation with Gov. Glenn Youngkin and our sister institutions across the commonwealth.

More practically, the University has taken deliberate steps to welcome and foster free expression across our Grounds, whether by supporting the right of community members to peacefully demonstrate in support of, or in opposition to, causes local and global; designing new curriculum and programming focused on productive exchange of opposing ideas; or welcoming speakers from across the political spectrum, including former Vice President Mike Pence, “Just Mercy” author Bryan Stevenson, and many others.

Thomas Jefferson charged this institution to be “not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead,” and we have tried our best to meet that calling. I hope the administration and our faculty will seek more ways to encourage civil discourse in the midst of differing viewpoints.

‘Inside UVA’ A Podcast Hosted by Jim Ryan
‘Inside UVA’ A Podcast Hosted by Jim Ryan

Q. How do you view the evolution of honor during your tenure?

A. When students began to move toward a referendum that would significantly alter the Honor System in 2022, the board and University leaders were placed in the difficult position of balancing our responsibility to protect the Honor System with the imperative to respect UVA’s tradition of student self-governance. We decided early on that the best approach was to work with student leaders to help them understand the history and importance of honor and the responsibility to protect this essential UVA value. 

When students voted to do away with a single-sanction Honor System and remove expulsion as a potential consequence of an honor violation, many of us were disappointed and concerned for the future of honor. However, we also recognized and respected the rights of the students to make these decisions. Our engagement and education activities continued through individual conversations and broader initiatives like our “Living Honor” campaign, initiated by the Alumni Association at the request of President Ryan and myself.

One year later, the students overwhelmingly voted to restore expulsion as a sanction for the most aggravated honor violations, while maintaining many of the other reforms that were put into place the previous year, a welcome revision that struck a much better balance between reforms and preserving the heart of the Honor System.

I’m proud of the way the board responded to this process, respecting our role as Visitors at the University and in doing so helping to navigate a narrow path between two essential University values in honor and student self-governance.

Q. Following November’s tragic shooting and an uptick in violent crime in the region, our community has been very focused on public safety. How do you view the University’s response to these concerns?

A. Keeping students, faculty, staff and visitors safe is the highest responsibility of any university and it is one we take very seriously. There is a lot of concern in our community about public safety and I certainly understand and share it.

We continue to grieve the loss of Devin Chandler, D’Sean Perry and Lavel Davis Jr. and to do everything we can to support their loved ones and everyone affected by the tragic shooting last November and its aftermath. I am encouraged that the University has already responded with some changes to make our community safer. We are also awaiting the findings of the attorney general’s external review into the circumstances that led to the shooting and expect that process to yield additional recommendations for actions we can take to keep people safe.

More generally, I know President Ryan, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer J.J. Wagner Davis, and our UVA chief of police, Tim Longo, are working closely with our partners in the Charlottesville region to address the rise in gun violence in this area and all over the country.

The University has also undertaken new initiatives to play a more meaningful role in identifying policy solutions that could curtail gun violence. Putting the resources and expertise of this institution to work on problems we face as a society is directly in line with Mr. Jefferson’s vision for the service this institution would provide to Virginia and the nation, and I’m proud to be a part of that important work.

Q. Speaking of Mr. Jefferson, how has the University’s approach to his legacy changed during your tenure, and what do you see for the future?

A. UVA’s position on Thomas Jefferson has changed remarkably little in the time that I have served on the board, or even in the time since I was an undergraduate and law student here. There is no question that Mr. Jefferson is at the very heart of this institution’s identity, now and well into the future.

Earlier this month, I was pleased to participate in the University’s annual celebration of Founder’s Day, recognizing the anniversary of Mr. Jefferson’s birthday and honoring his contributions to our institution, our commonwealth and our nation.

As Visitors here, my colleagues and I take our responsibility to uphold Thomas Jefferson’s place at the University very seriously, and I believe we have done quite well. Part of that is being open to new information about Jefferson and the life he lived. Being honest about the fullness and complexity of Mr. Jefferson’s life, including elements that are inconsistent with his stated values and our modern understanding of morality and human rights, does not limit our ability to recognize his genius or the enduring impact he made on our world. I have great confidence in this board and the University’s leadership to approach these questions in a thoughtful and constructive way.

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