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Reckless. Insulting. Reprehensible. Beneath the bare minimum.
That’s how the University of Virginia’s student government, student newspaper and a student group, the University Democrats, have described a new member of the university’s Board of Visitors, Bert Ellis, in separate but critical statements over the last several months. They see Ellis, CEO of a private equity firm and president of the conservative UVA alumni organization the Jefferson Council, as a threat to the progress the university has made in recent years. All three groups have called for Ellis’s resignation.
“As the University continues to grapple with its history of slavery, racism, and eugenics, Mr. Ellis’ appointment is not only regressive, but also directly insulting to countless students and student organizations who have worked relentlessly to make Charlottesville more equitable,” the University Democrats wrote in a statement co-signed by the Democratic Party of Virginia.
Both Ellis and Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin, who appointed Ellis, have thus far resisted calls for his removal from the board. Ellis was one of the Republican governor’s first four appointees to the university’s governing board this summer. A majority of the 17-member board could be Youngkin appointees within the next two years. Board members serve four-year terms under appointments by the governor that are subject to confirmation by state lawmakers.
“Our school is a place for the ‘development of the full potential of talented students from all walks of life,’ not a battleground for alumni to harass students and wage an ideological war,” the University of Virginia Student Council Executive Board wrote in a statement that made reference to an incident that involved Ellis confronting a student.
Youngkin has dismissed reporting by the student-run newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, that documented how Ellis helped to bring eugenicist William Shockley to campus in February 1975 for an academic debate while Ellis was a student and a chairman of the University Union, the group that organized events for students. (UVA was the intellectual home of Virginia’s eugenics movement in the early 20th century.) Ellis also denied a request from what was then the Gay Student Union in March 1975 to co-sponsor a talk by gay rights activist Frank Kameny, according to Cavalier Daily archives.
“It’s [homosexuality] not an issue viewed highly in the University,” Ellis told the paper. “It would not help the University Union’s position and prestige.”
Youngkin told The Washington Post that he hadn’t seen the articles but suggested Ellis’s actions in the 1970s shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards.
Ellis and Youngkin did not respond to requests for comment.
Some current students say Ellis’s more recent behavior is disqualifying for membership on the governing board. Ellis has criticized efforts at UVA to make the campus more inclusive and derided a student-run effort earlier this year to reform the university honor system and add other sanctions, other than expulsion, for violations.
“This is our only opportunity to change/reverse the path to Wokeness that has overtaken our entire University,” Ellis wrote in a post on the Jefferson Council’s website. “Meanwhile, we still have a ton of work to fight the ongoing and continuing onslaught by the entrenched DEI bureaucracy at UVA.”
When Ellis took issue with a profane poster on a student’s room door in 2020, he decided to take matters into his own hands. The student wrote “Fuck UVA” on the poster, which faced the university’s quad, along with other criticisms of the university.
Ellis described in a post on a conservative blog how he traveled to Charlottesville to talk with the student who wrote the comment on the poster and brought a small razor blade with him to remove the offensive language. Two public safety ambassadors stationed near the room told Ellis that using the razor would be considered malicious damage of university property and a violation of the student’s First Amendment rights. Ellis subsequently did not use the razor.
“Whether or not Ellis used his blade, whether or not Ellis threatened the student directly, his conduct is reprehensible,” the UVA student council statement says. “Ellis’ erratic behavior and blatant disregard for students’ wellbeing is unbecoming of University leadership and has no place in our University community.”
Other statements and newspaper editorials against Ellis have also mentioned the razor-blade incident.
Eva Surovell, editor-in-chief of The Cavalier Daily, said what’s happening at UVA is an example of the battles being waged over public education policies and campus culture wars across the country.
“We’re just not unique in that really conservative voices are nostalgic for a time when women, when Black people and when other people of color were either banned or much less of a population here at UVA,” she said.
Walter Heinecke, president of UVA’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said he’s heard concerns from faculty members about Ellis’s appointment and how it could affect academic freedom on the campus. The chapter has not yet adopted a formal position, but Heinecke expects the issue to be discussed at an upcoming meeting.
“From my own personal point of view, not representing the AAUP chapter, I am concerned about this issue, and I fully support the students’ concerns as well as the actions that they deem necessary to correct the problem,” Heinecke said.
During his campaign for governor, Youngkin didn’t offer many specifics on his plans for higher education. But since his inauguration, he has pushed for more control over the state community college system’s search for a new chancellor, told college presidents to hire faculty “with diverse political perspectives” and asked all public colleges and universities to roll back planned tuition increases. Only UVA didn’t acquiesce to that request—a decision Youngkin called “disappointing,” according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Youngkin’s attorney general also fired the top lawyers at UVA and George Mason University shortly after the governor took office.
Jon Becker, a professor of higher education leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the newly politicized climate at UVA is not unique and that other state higher ed institutions are also experiencing similar dynamics under Republican governors aggressively going after university policies and practices with which they disagree and administrators and faculty they deem too liberal.
“We are seeing in other states, state-level officials, governors and others who are taking an unusually high level of interest in university governance and university affairs,” he said. “Places like Florida, where they are getting involved in the hiring and firing of faculty members. While we’re not quite there in Virginia, one does start to wonder if this is part of an effort by Governor Youngkin and others to take more control of the affairs of universities in ways that governors hadn’t in the past or state officials hadn’t in the past.”
Public colleges and universities in Virginia are overseen by their respective governing boards rather than a statewide agency. Becker said this decentralized system makes the board appointments more important.
“The boards of each institution are very important and have important work to do, and so they need to be able to do it with as much credibility as possible,” he said. The Board of Visitors will hold its first full business meeting with the four new appointees next week.
Becker said Ellis’s appointment seems “not well vetted and thoroughly considered” and that the controversy over it could disrupt the functioning of the board, overshadow its work and undermine its credibility.
“Boards have really important work to do, especially these days when finances are tight,” he said. “They have a real important fiduciary responsibility to the university, and you want their work to be done with as much credibility as possible.”