University of Virginia Rotunda

The administration at U.Va. says it did not show favor to children of donors and alumni.

Donald Trump’s victory has so delighted the U.Va. community that several hundred of its members have already begun working to get him re-elected. The other day 469 faculty members and students sent a letter to university president Teresa Sullivan rebuking her for quoting Thomas Jefferson, the university’s founder.

This paroxysm of political correctness was described by the psychology professor who drafted the letter as an attempt “to start a conversation with our administration regarding ways to be more inclusive.” In the modern university, being inclusive generally means silencing any voice that does not swallow the canon of liberal identity politics whole. Trump’s election was in no small part a reaction against such nonsense.

Anyone even casually familiar with Thomas Jefferson knows well the contradictions he lived and the numerous ways he fell short not only of 21st-century ideals but of his own — just like every other human being who has ever lived. Jefferson was a slaveholder and a bigot and a genius and one of the greatest figures in American history.

In response to the letter, Sullivan sensibly explained that quoting Jefferson “does not imply an endorsement of all the social structures and beliefs of his time, such as slavery and the exclusion of women and people of color from the university.” The point is blindingly obvious, and the necessity of its repetition does not speak well of the capacity for nuance of the letter’s signatories — some of whom, we suspect, at some point have approvingly cited other historical figures who also have feet of clay.

Indeed, the notions of tolerance and diversity are steeped in a Western intellectual tradition that was built by deeply flawed individuals from ancient Greece to 19th-century Britain. To insist on tolerance and diversity is, in fact, to rely on the intellectual framework built by those such as Jefferson, who said of U.Va. that “here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” In that regard even repudiating Jefferson is an homage to him.


Commenting is limited to Times-Dispatch subscribers. To sign up, click here.
If you’re already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.