In Defense of UVA

Despite its recent trials, the university embodies the dream of public higher education, Mark Edmundson writes.

November 27, 2017
 
The University of Virginia
 

The University of Virginia has had a rough year. Actually, we’ve had a rough five years.

In the summer of 2012, members of the University Board of Visitors decided to dismiss President Teresa Sullivan. Reasons were vague. There was talk about how she had failed to be sufficiently “dynamic” in leading the university. She was scolded for failing to rush to the forefront of online education, which she was told by Helen Dragas, the rector of the Board of Visitors, was the next big thing. (It was not.)

The board got Sullivan to sign a letter of resignation and accept a settlement. The students and faculty and alumni of Virginia rallied, and after demonstrations and protests, the board buckled and reinstated Sullivan. One could think that was the end of UVA’s troubles, at least for a while.

Next came the disappearance and horrible murder of a second-year student, Hannah Graham. Graham was seen walking unsteadily and alone through our downtown mall. She got into a car with Jesse Matthew, who took her to a secluded spot and murdered her. Her body was found in a field not far from where I live.

Then came the Rolling Stone debacle in which a young woman, under the pseudonym Jackie, told a reporter from the magazine, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, that she had been gang-raped at a university frat house. There was then and is now no evidence that this occurred. But for a while, UVA was Rape University. In some quarters, it may still be -- retractions and corrections being far less often attended to in everyday American journalism than provocative untruths.

The school year was almost over when alcohol enforcement police elected to throw Martese Johnson, an African-American student, to the ground after he committed the high crime of trying to get into a local pub while under the age of 21. “I go to UVA, you fuckers. You fuckin’ racists,” Johnson reportedly said to the representatives of the law. It had no salutary effect.

After 2014-15, one might have thought that the university had absorbed its share of misfortunes and that the cosmos and the powers that direct it (should they exist) might back off. They did, for a while. Then came August 2017, when neo-fascists held a torchlight march through the university’s grounds. Striding in rows of twos and threes, they made their way through Mr. Jefferson’s grounds, chanting “Blood and soil,” “you will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us” and other uplifting slogans. Anyone wondering what the early hours of Kristallnacht might have looked like could have found out by wandering across our grounds that evening.

The night ended with a small band of UVA students grouped around a statue of Jefferson, being taunted and, in a few cases, assaulted by the visiting neo-fascists. Then followed the aborted Unite the Right rally Saturday. There was a death; there were injuries. Next came President Trump’s injudicious comments about violence “on many sides.” Again, the university was in the news, dismally so. One commentator observed that Trump was in deep trouble that week: “There’s North Korea,” she said. “There’s Charlottesville.” It did not help that two of the neo-fascist organizers, Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, were UVA graduates.

Did the University of Virginia have it coming? Was it something more than chance that the neo-fascists had chosen our grounds for their display? Our founder is notorious for having been a slaveholder. We are, we are told, an elitist school. Our students’ families are far too rich. We have not done enough for the city of Charlottesville. Our institution was built by slaves. We did not integrate racially for an ungodly long time. And we were slow enough to take in women students as well. In the days after the Unite the Right rally, indictments of the university rolled in.

Is there anything to be said for the University of Virginia? Is there any defense to be made?

I think there is and will try to offer a brief one. What follows are the observations of one person -- albeit someone who has been a professor at the university for nearly 35 years. Others will see matters differently. I speak only for myself.

Inspiration, Quality and Commitment

Our critics tell us that our students are “entitled.” They are awash in their sense of privilege. They must not know the same students I do. The most common word I hear students use about being at UVA is “lucky.” The second most is “fortunate.” The most common sentence goes this way: “I am lucky to be here.” This is, I believe, the pervasive attitude of our students. “Ever since I was six [or eight or 10] I’ve wanted to come to UVA, and I can’t believe that I’m here.” They are also grateful to their parents. I have heard many tributes to what mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers have sacrificed to send their child to school.

The students’ gratitude is sometimes based on finances. They are getting one of the world’s best educations for a reasonable price -- in-staters pay $16,000 a year in tuition and fees. If it is not the best educational deal in America, it is close.

But students are talking about more than money. They love this university. At Yale University, where I was a grad student, my undergrads respected and admired the institution, but they were in awe of it, too. They were intimidated. It felt like it belonged to someone else -- someone who lived 200 years ago.

Our students love UVA for many reasons, but a chief one is that they feel it is theirs. Tradition is everywhere here, but it is Jeffersonian tradition, which means that there is an injunction to make it new and to make it yours. This the students do. They govern themselves, they enforce their own code of honor, they participate in major decisions. As much probably as at any other institution, they influence the course of events.

The University of Virginia has the vast range of classes one associates with the largest universities -- you can study almost anything here. But we have the intimacy of connection between students and faculty that usually can only be found at small colleges. It is a great research institution and a great teaching institution. Granted, I wish our students read more and pursued their activities a little less; I wish they saw themselves more as aspiring thinkers than aspiring leaders; I wish they could dial their party culture back. But they are a pleasure to know and to teach.

Our grounds are an inspiration for learning. Jefferson’s ideas about the best form of education are inscribed in his design of the Lawn. Faculty members live in close proximity to students. That gives us the sense that we are all in this enterprise together and that personal contact between teachers and students is at the heart of the endeavor. The great expanse of the Lawn is a pastoral gesture. It encourages leisure and conversation. It suggests that learning is not only gleaned from books but also from exchange with others.

The Rotunda, the heart of the Lawn, is modeled after the Pantheon in Rome, and it was the library in the university’s first manifestation. Jefferson placed books where the statues of the Greek divinities are in the Pantheon. Rightly so: books were Jefferson’s gods, entities with the power to transform individuals and the world. The Rotunda looks back to the classical age, the pre-Christian world. It affirms an independent form of learning not based on subservience to the existing religious doctrines of early-19th-century America, but free. This was a revolutionary gesture. The university at its best looks back in order to look ahead.

We have a good faculty, too, though I hope I do not seem boastful in saying so. Professors care about their scholarly and scientific work -- and they’re good at it. They also care about teaching -- and they’re very good at that, too. You may find a few institutions where the faculty does more and better writing and research. But I think you’ll have a hard time finding any universities where the faculty teaches as well as ours does and does its own work as effectively and to as much legitimate recognition.

The scholarship and public writings of my colleagues are first-rate. They work hard, produce copiously and get considerable applause for their efforts. They have national and international reputations. I think that one quality holds our work together, at least in the humanities and social sciences: you can read it. Some of what we write is demanding, but there is rarely obfuscation or fancy dancing. People take the state university business seriously -- they write so that an interested citizen can understand what they say. We have a commitment to our disciplines -- but we have a commitment to being a public university, too.

The administration may have one of the most difficult tasks in the country. Our freedom to raise tuition has long been limited by the state Legislature, so the administration is compelled to raise vast sums to keep the university going and help it to develop. This they do with ongoing success. In the past few years, our president has had to struggle to raise money and fight off some of the most onerous challenges that any executive in American education has contended with. Difficulties arise from all sides. Our Board of Visitors is made up of political appointees, many of whom have no experience in the running of educational institutions. Needless to say, that does not stop them from having strong opinions as to how it should be done. The administration must also contend with a Legislature that contains its complement of those who are not always friendly to liberal education.

We are not a new university -- we were founded 200 years ago. As such, we are implanted in the history of the nation, and in particular our nation’s southern history. Our founder is the chief promulgator of the simple, profound truth that all men and women are created equal and have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This truth has rung out across the world, and it has done immeasurable good. Every rebellion against tyranny that has come after ours is indebted to Thomas Jefferson. Repeatedly, he has helped people to liberate themselves. Has any individual thinker and statesman done more for the cause of freedom than he?

Obligations to the Past

Jefferson was also a holder of slaves and a believer in the intellectual superiority of white people over black. The great liberator was a slave driver. The apostle of freedom kept men and women in chains. Some of those chained were his own descendants. What are we to make of this? Jefferson is, to say the least, an enigmatic figure: the best book I have read about him is revealingly titled American Sphinx.

After the events of Aug. 11 and 12, the world, or rather, that part of the world that devotes itself to the moral instruction of others, has told us that we must face our racist past, purge ourselves of vestiges of white supremacy and otherwise cleanse our souls. I wish that the moralists would look to themselves and begin some of their hoped-for reform at home. As the rabbi says, “You see a mote in your neighbor’s eye but miss the log in your own.”

That does not mean that the issues the moralists raise are easily cast aside. Determining one’s obligations to the past is one of the most difficult spiritual and intellectual tasks known to us.

As a scholarly institution, one of our obligations is inarguable: we must get at the truth. We must keep studying Jefferson and his life and times and come up with a clear, accurate view of his massive contributions and his dismal flaws. We need to learn even more about his staggering faults, as well as his astonishing achievements.

The university should probably get to work on a collective statement about who we take Jefferson to be. In this statement, understanding should take radical precedence over judgment. I have for some time been an advocate of assembling a one-credit course -- online if need be, and taken by all students -- on the subject of the founder and the founding of our university. We all should know where we come from.

What then? Different people will have different views. I endorse focus on the present and the future. We should locate brilliant and hardworking poor students, particularly in the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, and give them a chance to flourish at the university. If they are the descendants of the slaves who built the university, so much the better.

We are now building a monument to the enslaved laborers who helped to construct the university, which I applaud. But as someone committed to the present and the future, I would also like to see us invest resources in the members of our cleaning and grounds crews and our support staff, many of whom do not now really make a living wage. A significant moiety of them are probably descendants of the slaves being memorialized. Let’s offer them a chance to flourish here and now. Otherwise, 100 years down the line, right-thinking individuals will be building monuments to our cafeteria workers and grounds crew and impugning us for our blindness to their plight. We need to try to spread our light and truth in the present and not be overwhelmed with worry about our obligation to the deceased.

Yet I realize that the subject of our obligation to the past is one on which honorable people can differ. We have a second patron figure at UVA: Edgar Allan Poe. In Poe’s writing, the past always looms up ahead (and not too far ahead), waiting to devour the present. As soon as you see the crack down the middle of the House of Usher, you know that by story’s end the house will split apart. Ours is the university that offered hospitality to William Faulkner, who told us that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

These writers and the visions they offer are not to be dismissed lightly. I am not for burying the past -- we should bring it into the light of day. But I am not for being haunted to the point of possession by old crimes. How much import to give to the past, and to what measure the past will usurp the present if we refuse to give it its due -- these issues are not easily resolved. I’m not sure we need to roll ourselves into a penitential ball because the Ku Klux Klan gave us $1,000 close to 100 years ago. We need to do right, and right on racial issues in particular, now and in the future.

Americans thrive on disjunction. We leap away from the past. Where did the civil rights movement come from? How did the cultural revolution called the ’60s arise? Think about the women’s movement or the movement for gay liberation. Think about the sudden emergence of Barack Obama and his election as the first black president of the United States. Historians often presume to tell us the origins and genealogy of this or that striking phenomenon, but our best moments seem to me often to come with an inspired stroke. We don’t look back: we look at the present, see where it’s flawed, then jump forward to fresh possibilities. Only one major university in the nation was founded by a true revolutionary, and that is ours. His presence makes us capable of being revolutionary ourselves.

The University of Virginia embodies a dream. It’s the dream of not just adequate or good but great education offered at a fair price, sponsored by the public and open to all. We are a public university that strives to be on par with the best private institutions in the country. Our students and faculty understand that we have responsibilities not only to ourselves but also to the Commonwealth of Virginia and the nation. The students and professors and trustees at other public universities should be able to point to Virginia and tell their legislators and their electorate that they want something that’s as good or better.

Don’t the sons and daughters of all the states deserve a crack at the very best public education at a decent price? And shouldn’t private institutions look in our direction and toward Michigan and Berkeley and say, “There they educate people not to go out in pursuit of personal gain, but to serve the best interests of the state, the nation and world”? As a public university, guided by the best of Jefferson’s legacy, we cannot help but think in large terms. We’re not without flaws, to be sure. There’s much here that’s still to be done. But we carry the dream of great public education for all forward into the future. And that is something to celebrate and defend.

Bio

Mark Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia. His most recent books are Why Write? and Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals.

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