- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2016

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan is defending her use of a quote from Thomas Jefferson, the university’s founder, in a campus-wide email last week after students and faculty complained.

Nearly 470 students, professors and staff signed a letter Friday asking Ms. Sullivan to stop quoting Jefferson because of his slave-owning past. Ms. Sullivan indicated in a statement Monday that she had no plans to ignore the late president’s contributions to the university.

“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,” the university president wrote.

“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,” she continued. “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.”

Professors and students who signed the letter Friday argued that Ms. Sullivan’s inclusion of Jefferson quotations in her emails undermined “the message of unity, equality and civility” that she was trying to convey.

“I’ve been here 15 years,” politics professor Lawrie Balfour told The Cavalier Daily. “Again and again, I have found that at moments when the community needs reassurance and Jefferson appears, it undoes I think the really important work that administrators and others are trying to do.”

In her statement Monday, Ms. Sullivan stressed the university’s tradition of promoting free speech and said she fully supported the group’s right to speak their minds.

“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,” she wrote. “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.”

A change.org petition launched Monday by John Sweeney, a 2009 graduate, seeks to preserve Jefferson’s legacy at the University of Virginia.

“We believe this focus on one horrible aspect of Jefferson’s life wrongly ignores his many important contributions to human dignity and liberty,” the petition reads. “Jefferson’s life’s work was courageous, contributed greatly to the advancement of human dignity and freedom across the world, and should be held in highest veneration at the University he founded.”

Supporters do not have to be affiliated with the university to sign the petition, which garnered 209 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

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