An outraged alumnus took a knife to my classmate’s door. Now he’s on our Board of Visitors.

Bert Ellis was appointed to the UVA Board of Visitors in July 2022

In the Fall of 2020, when I was a sophomore at the University of Virginia, our campus was embroiled in controversy. A student living along the Lawn (our version of a quad) posted a sign that read “F-ck UVA” and criticized the school for its ties to enslavement and eugenics. Many debates were had over the merits of the sign, and despite the difficult nature of these conversations, students were engaging in respectful, good-faith dialogue.

But when UVA alumnus Bert Ellis came to campus, he saw the sign and became so outraged that he used a box cutter to try to cut it down. He only relented when two UVA security personnel told him doing so would be a misdemeanor.

Then, last month, Governor Glenn Youngkin appointed Ellis to our Board of Visitors.

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin

The Board of Visitors is UVA’s highest governing body, and it is responsible for the education of over 30,000 students. Ellis was appointed as part of Youngkin’s effort to expand intellectual diversity and combat “cancel culture” on campuses. As the president of the Jefferson Council, who describe themselves as a group of UVA alumni concerned with protecting free speech and Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, Ellis’ appointment makes sense from a political perspective.

However, Ellis’ behavior shows that he neither respects students nor our voices. At worst, Youngkin’s appointment of Ellis feels like a muted echo of former president Trump’s refusal to condemn the actions of violent rioters in Charlottesville in 2017. In both cases, the state tacitly approved of violence on our campus, leaving students with no recourse but to pick up the pieces. At best, Youngkin appointed someone less mature than the students he is responsible for. Many students come to UVA because, as an arm of the Virginian government, UVA is required to respect student’s First Amendment rights. But now, students fear partisan retaliation for their speech.

Ellis and Youngkin aren’t the only two people to blame for these fears. UVA itself has a long history of arresting and policing left-leaning activists on campus. And in recent years, the school has been accused of partisan enforcement of speech codes against progressives. When the university condemns student speech, it encourages private, partisan actors like Ellis to take matters into their own hands, threatening students and their property in the process.

Mainstream journalistic coverage of groups like the Jefferson Council is also deeply flawed. To give a paradigmatic example, the Washington Post published an article earlier this month discussing the rise of conservative alumni groups. The piece mentions Ellis’ trying to cut down a student’s sign, but in the same sentence states that Ellis is “fight[ing] for free-speech issues.”

Threatening violence against a person or their property because you disagree with what they say is antithetical to any notion of “free speech.”

Book bans aren’t free speech. Doxxing teachers isn’t free speech. Tearing down people’s signs isn’t free speech. Appointing people who approve of those things to positions of power is also, therefore, not defending free speech. Reporting on the ongoing wave of Republican policy as being primarily driven by a concern for a nonpartisan conception of “free speech” masks the actual political goal of these endeavors: reducing the presence of left-leaning thought in schools.

As a progressive student, I don’t know what to do. It seems like right-wing alumni physically preventing me from exercising my First Amendment rights is accepted, laudable even, but if I speak up too loudly in class I’m at fault for censoring my more conservative colleagues. Heads I lose, tails you win.

Even worse, with his newfound institutional powers, I fear Ellis could cause serious harm to the UVA community. What if, instead of slashing my sign, Ellis tries to cut my financial aid?

Many students I know are more hesitant now to participate in student governance and activism because they fear retaliation. But that doesn’t mean we will be silent. Last week, our Student Council released a statement calling on Ellis to resign, and our student newspaper’s editorial board published an article to the same effect. I’m confident that we will survive this, the question is whether Ellis will do the mature thing and step down.

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