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.