On November 9th, UVa president Teresa Sullivan sent an e-mail to the university community appealing for peace and civil discourse following a “divisive” U.S. presidential election. She urged students to continue participating politically in the future, and offered a quote from Thomas Jefferson as the impetus for her message.
Her use of a Jefferson quote engendered backlash from a group of students and faculty members who called for Sullivan to stop the practice of quoting the University’s founder. 469 students and faculty signed a letter expressing their disappointment “in the use of Thomas Jefferson as a moral compass.”
“Though we realize that some members of our university community may be inspired by quotes from Jefferson,” the letter read, “we also realize that many of us are deeply offended by attempts on behalf of our administration to guide our moral behavior through their use.”
Sullivan responded to this letter through use of another Jefferson quote, a defiance indicative of an allegiance to tradition over the whims of the student population. This is the crux of the university; without Jeffersonian idealism there would be nothing to sell, for most of its good is steeped in the feigned exceptionalism of a highly influential man with damning contradictions.
It appears on this front there will be no progress. Over the years, much has been written by students at the university grappling with the legacy of Jefferson. In fact, this lateral movement is as much a part of the fabric of the university than Thomas Jefferson himself. This latest stand is not new, but a healthy and cyclical nothingness incumbent upon progressive institutions confronted with the Founding Fathers era. While repudiation of Thomas Jefferson distinguishes students from the faults of their predecessors, it also emboldens the university to double-down on its commitment to the man.
In response to Sullivan’s defense of using Jefferson quotes, Assistant Psychology Professor Noelle Hurd, who drafted the letter denouncing the use, said “I know that this collective email has spawned many important conversations within our University, and I fully expect that these conversations will continue.”
There is validity to the positions of both sides. On the one hand, the sensibilities of a large portion of the student body are directly affected by the sentiments and actions of their founder. That Jefferson’s glaring faults are counterbalanced by his influence and forward thinking only exacerbate the grotesqueness of his well-documented flaws. To the university, however,, the abstract Jeffersonian ideal is magnetic, a powerful standard to cling to for as long as possible. There is no doubt the conversations between both sides are beneficial for both the students who would gain from their peers’ viewpoints as well as the university who is only as current as they are in-touch with their students.
But there must be some better resolution than the university not reaching a portion of the student body who instead feels alienated at their practice. Intellectual progress should not be stymied by the paternalistic invocation of Jefferson’s outmoded likeness. Today we would not accept as standard a public figure who exhibited such moral hypocrisy as Thomas Jefferson — we certainly would not allow it from a minority public figure. Public figures should be discarded from the social consciousness once they exhibit this moral insufficiency, and rightfully so. Jefferson, much like the rest of the Founding Fathers, was particularly exceptional and as such has earned an exaltation from this practice of interchanging.
I do not find this practice equitable. In fact, I find this to be where the solution lies. The profundity and universal applicability of Jefferson’s message of civil discourse and intellectual freedom should not grant him reprieve from this practice of cleansing. Rather, it should place the onus on the university to identify people who have successfully coupled his message with a less offensive moral likeness. These people, coming from a whole range of cultures and creeds, should be the standard bearers for a diverse and progressive university community. If the justification for Jefferson’s looming presence is over his message, then surely in this way it can be delivered in a more palatable manner.
This is the distinction between reverence and appreciation. While not mutually exclusive, they are distinguishable. The university can appreciate the complexity of Jefferson’s character profile while allocating reverence to individuals whom students can identify with without abrasion. Thomas Jefferson does not have to be extricated from the grounds he founded, but he and his likeness must now take a backseat in the name of universal progress.