The Board of Visitors, which runs the University of Virginia, has announced today that the school’s president of not quite two years, Teresa Sullivan, will be stepping down. This comes as a great shock to much of the university community, although what isn’t shocking is the habit of practically everyone to draft Thomas Jefferson, the university’s founder, in defense of their opinion on the matter.
It began with the Board of Visitors, which supported its controversial move by declaring, “We want this to be a place that lives up to Mr. Jefferson’s founding vision of excellence.” Elsewhere, the board quoted His Eminence: “We remain guided by Mr. Jefferson’s inspirational vision: ‘The great object of our aim from the beginning has been to make this Establishment the most eminent in the United States.'”
The Internet took it from there. In response to an article in the Charlottesville weekly The Hook, one reader said that Sullivan’s “idea is to turn UVA into another sprawling Michigan or Wisconsin, which is not what Jefferson really had in mind.” Another commenter quoted Jefferson and wrote, “I am not sure Jefferson would be so approving of this latest Board action.”
Of course, those are the folks for whom Jefferson represents all that is good and right—in other words, whatever they themselves think. Others take the opposite tack, like the commenter who compared the University of Virginia to a “plantation that operates on the ‘good ‘ol boys’ network system” and “hates diversity” not to mention “women in leadership positions!” Any wonder this person calls him/herself “Sally Hemmings”? [sic]
That all of this is a-historical and more than a bit silly goes without saying. (It doesn’t matter what Mister Jefferson would have thought … he’s dead!) But it’s a part of the culture here in Charlottesville, and a powerful one at that.
IMAGE: Statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia (wellfordtiller.com)