They burned flags at American University in Washington, D.C., after the presidential election. At the University of Virginia, the election ignited a distinctly UVA form of protest: an outbreak of civil discourse on the subject of Thomas Jefferson.
A week before the Nov. 8 election, and again the day after, UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan broadcast a pair of emails urging civility and a sense of community. Both invoked the words of Thomas Jefferson. With the first reference to the wisdom of Jefferson, assistant professor of psychology Noelle M. Hurd says she took exception. With the second, she took to her keyboard.
She set out to articulate why a hearkening to UVA’s founding father ill serves the goal of unifying a diverse community. “Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves and was deeply involved in the racist history of this University,” she wrote in a draft she circulated among her colleagues. Within 48 hours, and with the help of word of mouth, she amassed 469 signatures in all, at least 25 of them faculty or staff, the rest students. Together, in a public letter sent to Sullivan, they expressed disappointment in the “use of Thomas Jefferson as a moral compass.”
News of the petition quickly went global. The Cavalier Daily first reported it, and the national press snapped it up within 24 hours. Headlines about the faculty’s asking Mr. Jefferson’s University to shun Mr. Jefferson sprung up on news sites as far flung as The Seattle Times and London’s Daily Mail.
A convenient fit to a familiar narrative about campus correctness, UVA’s news dangled before rightward websites like a USDA prime bone-in ribeye seared rare. A link on the Drudge Report sent a stampede of readers to the Cavalier Daily, making coverage of the petition the student newspaper’s most-read story in 11 years of available data—289,000 online views vs. 181,000 for the previous record holder, reports newspaper CFO Grant Parker—impressive, considering it wasn’t UVA’s only high-profile headline in recent years.
Reaction soon streamed into the Alumni Association, universally decrying the notion that the University should tune out its founder. It’s a practice Sullivan tells Virginia Magazine she has no intention of following. Nor does she take the letter writers’ concerns lightly, she says.
“I plan to continue quoting Thomas Jefferson but will also defend the civil liberties” of those who disagree.
—UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan
The grievance goes to the much larger and long-running issue of how UVA comes to terms with the complex contradictions of its founder and its own history when it comes to slavery and matters of race. Those continue to be subjects of active University initiatives and study. In the pressurized aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, the University’s relationship to Thomas Jefferson underwent a stress test.
As it did, the civility of the discourse never wavered. At its most pitched, the discussion was most courteous. Throughout the very public back-and-forth, each party spoke of respect for the other and for their shared rights of expression and dissent. One free-speech advocate commends UVA on the civil tone, offering that Jefferson himself would be proud of the colloquy, even if it comes at his expense.
To put events in perspective, Virginia Magazine assembled a chronology of the public exchange and interviewed the principals along with other experts and observers around Grounds.
How Events Unfolded
Nov. 2, 2016
UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan issues a University-wide email urging civility after the following week’s election. She notes Jefferson’s bitter 1800 presidential election, which accomplished the country’s first transfer of power from one political party to another, and quotes from his inaugural address: “Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind.” She adds a line from a subsequent Jefferson letter: “The greatest good we can do our country is to heal its party divisions and make them one people.”
The day after the election, Sullivan sends a follow-up message to urge civility and coming together as a community. Encouraging students to stay engaged in the political process, she cites an 1825 Jefferson letter, irresistibly, also written on Nov. 9. Writing to a British friend, he calls UVA students “exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country.”
Assistant professor of psychology Noelle M. Hurd submits her letter with 469 signatures to Sullivan, offering “to provide you with some constructive and respectful feedback regarding your messages.” It goes on to say, “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 in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality, and civility that you are attempting to convey.”
In reply, Sullivan issues a comment. She prefaces it by reaffirming the free-speech rights of her critics, writing, “We remain … united in our respect for one another even as we engage in vigorous debate.” Taking as her theme that “Words have power,” she writes: “Quoting Jefferson (or any historical figure) does not imply an endorsement of all the social structures and beliefs of his time, such as slavery.” She goes on to discuss the diversity of the University community, none of which Jefferson would have imagined, and takes the opportunity to use his most famous quote of all, that “all men are created equal.” Sullivan explains, “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.”
Noelle M. Hurd
On what her petition sought
“The e-mail did not ask for Jefferson to be erased from the history of this university. We were not asking for censorship. Rather, we were communicating to our administration that we take offense at attempts by our university leader to guide our moral behavior through Jefferson’s example.”
On Sullivan’s election messages
“It is generally a bad idea to quote or otherwise reference a historical figure when that person’s actions contradict the message one is attempting to communicate. At best, this seems terribly ineffective. At worst, this is downright offensive.”
On Jefferson’s legacy
“Our administration and broader university community need to take Jefferson off of the pedestal and be more critical of his life and legacy. Though some of his actions were instrumental in advancing our society, others were fundamental in holding back specific members of our society. His transgressions do not negate his accomplishments, and similarly, his accomplishments do not negate his transgressions.”
On why she came to UVA “in spite of” Jefferson
“The fact that Jefferson founded this university was not a selling point for me or for others with whom I have spoken about this issue. This is a reality our administration must contend with if it is serious about being a place where individuals from diverse backgrounds can feel welcomed and included.”
On why she went public instead of first talking to Sullivan, as others have suggested
“The two e-mails Sullivan sent were to the entire UVA community, so a collective/open response seemed entirely appropriate. … I did want the response to be timely and so an immediate e-mail seemed preferable to a scheduled meeting (I imagine it takes some time to get on her schedule). … [ I ] would love to have the opportunity to discuss this further with her and any other members of our administration.”
On all the attention
“Some members of the UVA community may be worried about [the] negative publicity this public exchange received beyond the university, but … there was a great deal of positive … response/reaction/reception. Many see this as a show of bravery and leadership by our university in that we are wrestling with a complicated legacy and willing to have difficult conversations in a space designed to foster learning and critical thinking.”
Teresa A. Sullivan
On whether she’ll think twice before quoting Thomas Jefferson
“I plan to continue quoting Thomas Jefferson but will also defend the civil liberties” of those who wish to express disagreement. “It’s the power of Jefferson’s words that lead us to continue to quote Jefferson.” She notes that Martin Luther King Jr. famously quoted Jefferson in the “I Have a Dream” speech and that President Barack Obama also did so in his Chicago farewell address in January. She also points to a recent Cavalier Daily report showing that, prior to the election, Sullivan had quoted Jefferson only three times in three years over the course of 51 community-wide emails.
On freedom of speech at UVA
“Our heritage is an entirely free-speech heritage.” UVA has no need to adopt a University of Chicago statement [sent to that school’s incoming freshmen last August reaffirming freedom of expression and rejecting policies of trigger warnings, safe spaces and the like] because UVA has always respected free speech, and will continue to do so, she says. “Free speech will continue to be a topic of discussion and debate at UVA and on other college campuses, because we want to protect and uphold the principles of free speech while also upholding civility in discourse, which is another UVA tradition. One of our best solutions is to have a sustained, candid dialogue about the free-speech issues that we face, and to continually recommit ourselves to the highest principles of free expression.”
On UVA’s slave past
“No school our age or older on the East Coast is not touched by slavery.” She points to the ongoing work of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University, which she formed in 2013 with a charge to explore UVA’s historical relationship with slavery and highlight opportunities for recognition and commemoration.
On her public dialogue with the letter writers
“It was very civil. It was respectful. … I’m not seeking to silence anybody but I also don’t want to be silenced myself.”
Alan S. Taylor
On quoting Jefferson
“If we decline to quote from all slaveholders of the past, we would renounce George Washington, John Marshall, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero as well. … Americans’ tendency either to heroicize or demonize past people limits our public discourse. Because Jefferson was put up on a pedestal for so long as nothing but a hero, many critics now want to tear him down as nothing but a hypocrite. … [W]e have to work with his contradictions rather than reject categorically everything he wrote.”
On Jefferson, the University and racial equality
“We do need to recognize Jefferson’s complicity with slavery and his rhetoric that at times demeaned African Americans. And we have to come to terms with the University’s foundational relationship with slavery and its continuing difficulties in addressing racial inequality at the University and beyond. But that accounting can coexist with attending to Jefferson’s contributions to promoting democracy, education, science, literature, etc. Indeed, we will more fully understand American society and history if we can recognize the good and bad as interwoven rather than found distinctly in separate people.”
On the complexities of Thomas Jefferson
“[Jefferson] was, like almost all humans, a complex person and very much of his own time and society. At the same time, he sometimes had a rare capacity to think beyond that time and society (while often falling short in promoting the changes that his insights demanded).”
On whether the letter was a case of “political correctness”
“We could usefully avoid the term ‘political correctness’ as it has become a shorthand for those who reject all expressions of social criticism. The letter signers address important social issues, which we would do well to consider carefully, even if we ultimately advocate different solutions to the very real problems posed by racism.”
On where we go from here
“We need honestly to see the past as a complex place full of contradictory people—and to deal honestly with ourselves in the present as equally complex and not nearly as improved over the past as we would like to believe.”
Marcus L. Martin
On the letter to Sullivan
“People need to come to the table when there are disagreements and have a direct conversation. … Freedom of expression is good, but we can’t change the past. We can only educate ourselves so that we can move towards a better future.”
On the letter to Sullivan
“I had the opportunity and chose not to sign it. … That does not mean that I am not sensitive to people who are so struggling with the sedimentations of history. I am, but the burden is on them to find appropriate ways to do that.” His recommendation: “Meeting with the president and talking to her. She’s very receptive.”
On the appropriateness of quoting Thomas Jefferson
“Every speaker has the ethical responsibility to be appropriate, and every listener has the ethical responsibility to assess what they’re hearing appropriately,” he says. Look at the pretext, the speaker’s intent, in this case Sullivan’s goal of reassuring the community; the text, the meaning of the quoted words themselves; and the context of what’s going on in the world. “The burden is on the speaker and on the listener to use the criteria … pretext, text and context. If you do that, then we have a conversation, rather than diatribe. … It takes the edge off if you have an organized way of thinking about anyone’s discourse.” Based on that analysis, he says Sullivan’s postelection message was completely appropriate.
On whether the letter amounted to censorship
“I think that [the petition] was the expressing of a viewpoint and it was an attempt at persuading President Sullivan that the quoting of Thomas Jefferson is not a good idea. It does not appear to be an attempt to force her to do that. I think they have every right to advocate their position, just as I think President Sullivan has every right to listen to it and engage in debate about it but continue to quote Jefferson if she so chooses.”
On the tone of the debate
“While there are sharp differences of opinion, what’s encouraging is the respect and the courtesy that both sides seem to have for one another in this discussion. There seems to be a remarkable amount of civility, and that’s something that seems to be diminishing in these public debates, particularly on college campuses in the last few years.”
On what Jefferson would make of his University’s debating his character
“In the end, Jefferson would like that.”