A tone-deaf attack on diversity at a university first built by the enslaved, by Bob Lewis

3/28/2024, 6 p.m.
Posts began popping up in my social media feeds a couple of weeks ago from friends in my demographic: white, ...

Posts began popping up in my social media feeds a couple of weeks ago from friends in my demographic: white, male and old enough to know better.

They linked back to stories in the Washington Examiner or the Washington Times about a report by the nonprofit group OpenTheBooks.com, asserting the University of Virginia spends about $20 million a year on diversity, equity and inclusion staff.

If spotlighting non-essential, non-academic spending is the point, compare it to what UVA spends on its big-time sports programs. Data gathered by USA Today show that UVA spent about $150 million on intercollegiate athletics last year. About $46 million of it went to pay coaches and another $22 million went to scholarships for Wahoo student-athletes. That ranks Virginia 17th nationally in athletics spending and 14th in gross revenue among college sports programs.

Also contrast it to the value of the land and centuries-old structures and underlying infrastructure that are the centerpiece of the campus designed and founded by Virginia’s second governor, the nation’s third president and the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. Good luck finding a definitive dollar- amount valuation for the Lawn, the Rotunda and the Academical Village built from 1819 to 1825, the year the university opened. University spokesman Brian Coy said he had never seen one.

Who built much of that priceless repository of history, architecture and higher learning? Enslaved people.

Lots of them — including some owned by Mr. Jefferson — doing backbreaking, uncompensated, dawn-to-dusk labor for years on end.

There is no mention of the human bondage that was essential to UVA’s origins in the piece done by OpenTheBooks. It extols Mr. Jefferson and — Jeffersonian principles — without noting that this founding father owned slaves and fathered six children with one of them, Sally Hemings.

Here, some personal disclosure is due. My ancestors in the 18th and early 19th centuries also were slaveholders who lived and owned farms over that time in Gloucester, Goochland and Albemarle counties — the latter along the Rivanna River abutting Mr. Jefferson’s estate. The dark and tormented history is detailed in “Jefferson’s Nephews: A Frontier Tragedy” (1976) by Boynton Merrill Jr.

The passage of more than 150 years until my birth makes that inescapable fact of my heritage no less shameful to me.

Whether UVA spent $20 million on DEI salaries or just under $6 million, as the university contends, is not something I can independently ascertain. What is clear, as OpenTheBooks asserts, is that UVA has a robust DEI program.

Mr. Coy said the university’s accounting found that OpenTheBooks had inflated the cost by more than three times its actual amount partly by counting each of the 235 employees it identified as full time DEI staff when, in most cases, it was only a portion of their duties.

For example,Mr. Coy said in an email, Martin Davidson — listed by OpenTheBooks as UVA’s highest-paid DEI official at $587,340 in 2023 — spends most of his time as a tenured full professor in the Darden School of Business and executive director of the Contemplative Sciences Center.

“Dr. Tracy Downs is a board-certified urologist who has a urological surgical practice and teaches in the School of Medicine as well as engaging in community and diversity work for the Health System,”

Mr. Coy wrote of another faculty member identified in the report. (Spoiler alert: surgeons make good money.) Mr. Coy further noted that OpenTheBooks erred by extrapolating the hourly wages paid to part-time employees into full time annual salary estimates significantly greater than their actual pay.

Also, he wrote, more than 100 positions identified as faculty are actually student workers, “the majority of whom serve as tutors primarily in K-12 educational settings as part of a broadly available educational opportunity program.”

OpenTheBooks did not seek an explanation of its findings from UVA or offer it a chance for balancing comment before the piece was published, Mr. Coy said. I contacted OpenTheBooks last week offering it a chance to comment for this column but received no reply by week’s end. The D.C. newspapers’ accounts of the study, to their credit, independently sought and included comment from the university.

The OpenTheBooks’ piece makes no pretense of balance. Its objective is plain from the start: setting the stage for doing at UVA what Florida and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis recently did at the University of Florida, where all its DEI programs were dismantled.

“Reform or abolition [of DEI at UVA] must await this summer’s anticipated changes in the school’s Board of Visitors,” says the fourth paragraph, noting Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s summer appointments to UVA’s governing body, putting a majority of his designees in control. Youngkin’s belief that his boards of visitors appointees have a duty to do his will plus his antipathy toward DEI programs — especially the “E" part — is well chronicled.

Are there problems, inefficiencies or even abuses with DEI programs? I’ve never seen an initiative administered by the bureaucracies of government and/or academia that didn’t have at least some.

Those things are reparable. Ill intent isn’t.

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. He is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury.