Students, professors ask Sullivan to stop quoting Jefferson

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (NEWSPLEX) -- In an open letter, a group of University of Virginia professors and students have asked UVA President Teresa Sullivan to stop quoting Thomas Jefferson.

After the results of the presidential election last week, Sullivan sent out emails to the UVA community encouraging students to speak out, and she quoted Jefferson in the message.

In 1825, Jefferson wrote 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."

Sullivan included that quote, saying she encourages modern UVA students to embrace the responsibility implied by Jefferson.

In response, hundreds of students as well a members of the Psychology Department said they were disappointed in Sullivan's use of Jefferson as a moral compass.

They said the reference is offensive because Jefferson owned slaves and had racist beliefs.

"Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves. Other memorable Jefferson quotes include that Blacks are 'inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind,' and 'as incapable as children of taking care of themselves,'" stated the letter to Sullivan. "Though we realize that some members of our university community may be inspired by quotes from Jefferson, 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, writing, "Quoting Jefferson [or any historical figure] 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."

To read Sullivan's message and the letter sent by students and professors, scroll down:

Sullivan's email:

Dear fellow members of the UVA community:

Last week, I wrote to encourage every member of our community to come together in a spirit of cooperation and civility after Election Day. I write today to underscore that message and to appeal for equanimity in our community following the outcome of this divisive election.

I have some particular words of advice for our students. You have lived through an historic election, one that will be discussed for weeks by commentators and analyzed for years by political scientists. For many students, this was your first election; don’t let it be your last. You might or might not agree with the outcome of this election, and you might even be anxious about what the future holds. If so, do not allow any uncertainties you are feeling now to cause you to lose faith in the democratic process. The future of our country will depend on your continued commitment to participate in public discourse and to exercise your Constitutional rights. Rather than allowing uncertainties to make you captives of your imaginations, use your imagination to conceive and create the world that you and your generation want for yourselves.

By coincidence, on this exact day 191 years ago—November 9, 1825, in the first year of classes at UVA—Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that University of Virginia 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.” I encourage today’s UVA students to embrace that responsibility.

All of us know that, regardless of the outcome of this election or any presidential election, American democracy and our system of representative government are built to ensure stability and fairness. In shaping the US Constitution before he served as the University’s Rector, James Madison devised a system of checks and balances to limit political power and to protect the rights and liberties of the people. Our faith in democracy has sustained our country for more than two centuries, and will continue to do so for centuries to come.

As we move into the future following this year’s election, let our values be our guideposts. We define ourselves by a shared commitment to reasoned discourse, mutual respect, and steadfast support for every member of our community regardless of race, religion, or any other human difference. Political elections will come and go. The values that we share will remain a timeless source of affirmation and hope.

Teresa A. Sullivan

Letter sent in response to email quoting Jefferson:

Dear President Sullivan,

We are writing in response to the e-mails you have sent out to the university community in regards to civility in the current political climate. We appreciate you taking the time to acknowledge the issues facing our community and to encourage unity and inclusivity. We also wanted to take the opportunity to provide you with some constructive and respectful feedback regarding your messages.

We are incredibly disappointed in the use of Thomas Jefferson as a moral compass. Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves. Other memorable Jefferson quotes include that Blacks are "inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind," and "as incapable as children of taking care of themselves." Though we realize that some members of our university community may be inspired by quotes from Jefferson, 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.  

In the spirit of inclusivity, we would like for our administration to understand that 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. For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotes undermines the messages of unity, equality, civility, and inclusivity that you are attempting to convey. We understand desires to maintain traditions at this university, but when these traditions threaten progress and reinforce notions of exclusion, it is time to rethink their utility. Thank you for your time.

Sullivan's comment in response to the letter:

In the long-standing tradition of open discourse, UVA faculty, staff, and students are free to express their opinions, as they did in a letter to me last week. I fully endorse their right to speak out on issues that matter to all of us, including the University’s complicated Jeffersonian legacy. We remain true to our values and united in our respect for one another even as we engage in vigorous debate.

Words have power. To quote any person is to acknowledge the potency of that person’s words. 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. Quoting Jefferson (or any historical figure) 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.

We respond to the challenges of our times, and equity and inclusion are urgent leadership issues today. UVA is still producing leaders for our Republic, and from backgrounds that Mr. Jefferson could not have anticipated in 1825, when he wrote the words that I quoted. Today’s leaders are women and men, members of all racial and ethnic groups, members of the LGBTQ community, and adherents of all religious traditions. All of them belong at today’s UVA, whose founder’s most influential and most quoted words were “. . . all men are created equal.” Those words were inherently contradictory in an era of slavery, but because of their power, they became the fundamental expression of a more genuine equality today.



 
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