The head of the University of Virginia’s governing board on Friday reaffirmed the position of University leadership regarding the institutional connection to its founder, Thomas Jefferson.
“We are a University founded by Thomas Jefferson, and honoring his legacy and his contributions to our nation has, and will always be, an indelible part of what it means to live, learn and work here,” UVA Rector Whittington Clement said in remarks at the Board of Visitors meeting. “That is the policy and the position of this institution and it will not change under our leadership or that of President Ryan or his team.”
Jefferson, the country’s third president, founded UVA in 1819 as an institution dedicated to the creation of citizen leaders to serve the country’s young democracy. He considered the creation of UVA as one of his most worthy contributions, along with authoring the U.S. Declaration of Independence and writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedoms.
However, he also was a slave owner with complicated and contradictory actions and opinions that have come under increased scrutiny as both the University and country explore and acknowledge difficult histories against modern standards. In considering those contradictions, UVA, for example, has implemented a process through which some honorific namings of facilities and components of its physical environment from decades past have been changed in recent years. And it has pledged to provide context about statues and other physical markers on Grounds – including Jefferson – to provide a more complete set of information. The University also has researched its experience related to enslaved laborers, who built and maintained the institution in its early years.
“This institution has made great progress telling a more complete story of our history and of the life of Jefferson over the past few years, and none of that has undermined the clear and obvious contributions he made to this institution, to the nation, and really to humankind,” Clement said. “Jefferson’s legacy is not so fragile that it cannot withstand an honest reflection on the fullness of his life.”
Clement also referenced remarks delivered two years ago by President Jim Ryan, who also addressed the University’s relationship with its founder, including skepticism regarding UVA’s decision to contextualize the Jefferson statue on the Rotunda plaza.
“I do not believe the statue should be removed, nor would I ever approve such an effort,” Ryan said at the time. “As long as I am president, the University of Virginia will not walk away from Thomas Jefferson.”
In other action during its meeting, the Board of Visitors:
- Welcomed new academic deans to the University: Christa Acampora, College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences; Marianne Baernholdt, School of Nursing; Stephanie Rowley, School of Education and Human Development.
- Reviewed schematic designs for a project that will redesign part of the physics building, including a conversion of two lecture-style classrooms into more flexible and modern learning environments.
- Approved plans to demolish the University Gardens apartments, which were built in 1948 and acquired by UVA during the 1960s to provide housing for married couples and graduate students. The buildings have aging and deficient mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems and lack central air conditioning.