A Push to Reverse ‘Wokeness’ at U.Va.

To the Editor:

Re “Alumnus Fights Diversity Effort, From the Inside” (front page, April 23), about a campaign led by a University of Virginia board member against diversity, equity and inclusion programs at the school:

Your story about Bert Ellis’s crusade at U.Va. astonished me. I served on a committee in 1973 to help the new Black students there adjust to an institution that was clearly not welcoming. Minorities and women had only recently gained access to its undergraduate programs. We recommended reforms, including the establishment of a Black student affairs office.

But here we are, 50 years later, and race is still a core contention. If racism is not systemic, how could there have been so little progress for so long?

This is a sad story and a tragic denouement for all the efforts of good people at U.Va. I deplore Mr. Ellis’s attempts to further entrench a history of obliviousness to racism at U.Va. and so many other American institutions.

David W. Leslie
West Des Moines, Iowa

To the Editor:

When Bert Ellis and I matriculated at the University of Virginia over 50 years ago, our school was almost exclusively white and male, much like the students of Thomas Jefferson’s day. Both of us serve today as trustees of Virginia’s best universities, appointed by Virginia governors, though at different schools.

Our paths and philosophies diverge dramatically, however. Mr. Ellis has declared a war on “woke,” while I believe that “woke” can be merely another word for welcoming. Our mission must always be to invite and respect all the extremely diverse communities we serve.

We grow in stature and student success by declaring war on rigidity and bias, and not by adopting politicized agendas that turn back the clocks. Equity and inclusion are honest Virginia values.

Like Mr. Ellis, I honor U.Va.’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, whose public achievements are second to none. Jefferson’s personal failings as an enslaver, however, remind us of what is hypocritical, hurtful and tragic. At a school as great as U.Va., we can banish hagiography to seek the truth in all things, as Jefferson urged.

Bob Witeck
Arlington, Va.
The writer is a member of George Mason University’s Board of Visitors.

To the Editor:

Thomas Jefferson was an ardent supporter of free speech and, in the context of the university he founded, a promoter of student self-governance. Those who seek to suppress student speech regarding Jefferson’s racist beliefs and practices — including his ownership of more than 600 human beings in his lifetime — have ironically misunderstood, or perhaps intentionally ignored, their chosen role model’s directives.

Danielle A. Bernstein
The writer is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where she was the editor in chief of The Cavalier Daily.

To the Editor:

I’m a faculty member in English at University of Virginia, and wanted to note that the article about Bert Ellis — a recent right-wing appointee to U.Va.’s Board of Visitors — did not include some key details.

First, while the article does refer to an incident where Mr. Ellis tried to remove a sign he disliked from a student’s door, it does not mention the fact that Mr. Ellis showed up with a razor blade to cut away part of the sign, and persisted in arguing with the student after she had shut her door in his face. Ultimately, he was told to leave by university representatives.

In light of this, Mr. Ellis’s behavior and the forceful community backlash seem much less like a debate about freedom of speech. Instead, this is a case of a student feeling understandably frightened by a belligerent man.

Second, the article doesn’t mention the widely publicized text message exchange between Mr. Ellis and other members of his conservative alumni group, the Jefferson Council, in which Mr. Ellis referred to his student critics as “numnuts,” among other derogatory and dismissive comments. When these texts came to light, Mr. Ellis apologized to other members of the board, but pointedly refused to apologize to the students themselves.

U.Va. is frequently used in the press as a metonym for culture-war-type conflicts, so I understand the temptation to frame this story as a struggle between conservative ideologues and a progressive institution of higher education. But by omitting these details, and narrating this story around the right-wing talking point of “D.E.I. bloat,” this article has made Mr. Ellis and the Jefferson Council seem far more reasonable than they appear to many members of the U.Va. community.

Mr. Ellis and his group don’t seem to care what many students think or want, which is the complete opposite of what a teaching university requires from its leadership.

Piers Gelly
Charlottesville, Va.

To the Editor:

Re “Group That Advises U.S. on Opioids Took Millions From Sacklers” (front page, April 23):

I am writing regarding donations from the Sackler family to the National Academy of Sciences. The devastating and long-term effects of the opioid crisis for individuals, families and our society are severe, and we are taking steps to expedite returning or repurposing the Sackler funds as soon as possible.

Our efforts to return the donations, or use them for purposes other than originally contracted, have been delayed given the unwillingness of the Sackler family to accept returned funds or approve alternate appropriate uses for them.

After months of negotiations, this led us to suspend use of the funds in 2019. Previously, they had supported scientific prizes, colloquia and forums and were never used to support studies on opioid-related issues.

In addition to external peer review, we have many firewalls to protect the independence of the volunteer experts who conduct our studies. We have been transparent about the funds, including acknowledgment on our websites and in our press releases and annual treasurer’s reports. Further, there are legal implications for nonprofits of unilaterally breaching the terms of a contract with a donor.

We appreciate that the findings of our studies have been reported on for decades by The New York Times and understand and value the trust you, your readers and the public place in them.

Marcia McNutt
The writer is the president of the National Academy of Sciences.