The University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, is in the middle of a dispute over the use of Jefferson as a source of inspiration during this trying post-election time, according to the Washington Post. Jefferson is known as the “Father of the University of Virginia,” but some students and faculty don’t think he’s someone to be admired.
Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, but he also owned slaves. He likely had a nonconsensual affair with one of his slaves. While some see Jefferson as a slave owner who needs to be condemned, he’s long been celebrated as a founding father, especially at the institution he created.
Faculty members and students at UVA are talking about this complex legacy again. University President Teresa Sullivan emailed students after Trump’s victory to remind them to take responsibility for their actions. In the email she chose to quote Jefferson’s assertion that UVA students “are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes.” She’s used Jefferson quotes in several other emails to the community as well.
After that email was sent out, Assistant Professor of Psychology Noelle Hurd wrote an open letter to Sullivan, which was signed by more than 400 students and faculty. The letter asked that the president not use Jefferson’s quotations because he was a slaveholder with morally repugnant beliefs. “Although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it,” Hurd wrote. She ended the letter by saying, “For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotes undermines the messages of unity, equality, civility, and inclusivity that you are attempting to convey.”
On Monday, President Sullivan responded, “In my message last week, I agreed with Mr. Jefferson’s words expressing the idea that UVA students would help to lead our Republic. He believed that 200 years ago, and I believe it today.” She also reminded students and faculty that quoting some of Jefferson’s words doesn’t mean she endorses everything he ever said or did.