CHARLOTTESVILLE — Thomas Jefferson has been dead for more than 185 years. He founded the University of Virginia in 1819, which was long before #UVA became a trending hashtag on Twitter. His academic village didn’t have modern air-conditioning, let alone discussions of online education or 10-digit fundraising goals.
And yet, if you spent any time on the U-Va. grounds this week, you might get confused and think that the founding father was still alive and actively taking stances on the ouster of U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan or the campaign to have her reinstated .
While the ideals of an institution’s founder are at the core of any discussion of that institution’s future, the references have become . . . stunningly numerous.
It all started on a Sunday morning two weeks ago when Helen Dragas, leader of the U-Va. governing board, announced via mass e-mail that Sullivan had agreed to step down. In explaining the decision, Dragas wrote: “We remain guided by Mr. Jefferson’s inspirational vision: ‘The great object of our aim from the beginning has been to make this Establishment the most eminent in the United States.’ ”
A week later, Sullivan stood before the board and began by saying: “In 1816, our founder, Thomas Jefferson, said, ‘as new discoveries are made, new truth discovered and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.’ ”
The dueling Jeffersonian references have been nonstop, prompting this joke on Twitter:
It admittedly slows down the decision-making process when you have include a Thomas Jefferson quote in every statement #UVa— Greg O'Reagan (@andGreg) June 19, 2012
On Thursday, U-Va. faculty members wrote in a letter to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) that they are “bound to uphold the principles upon which Mr. Jefferson founded this University.”
Later that day, Sullivan again invoked Jefferson’s name (along with that of fellow founder James Madison) in a statement begging for civility on campus and an end to “crude, vulgar, or abusive language.”
Even later that day, Dragas released a lengthy statement outlining the major problems the flagship school faces “despite the enduring magic of Mr. Jefferson’s University.” She advocates for U-Va. to become a research powerhouse — after all, Jefferson had an “early encouragement of the sciences.”
What would Jefferson’s 140-character response be to all of this? An impersonator on Twitter (@MrJefferson_uva) guess angry: “I have never been sadder than I am today. My school is being run by monsters.” Fake Jefferson also urged famous alum Katie Couric to take a stance and congratulated LeBron James on being named most valuable player.
On Friday morning, a poster featuring Jefferson’s likeness appeared on the steps of the iconic Rotunda, not far from the towering statue of the famous founder. Written in blue and orange paint were the ominous words: “Not in my name.”
Later that day, McDonnell name-dropped Jefferson three times in statement about a letter he sent to the board, which demanded that they quickly resolve the conflict. The actual letter dedicates a paragraph to Jefferson’s biography and a quote about his “institution of my native state, the hobby of my old age.”
And this weekend, a U-Va. political professor penned an editorial for The Washington Post, “What would Thomas Jefferson think of the U-Va. turmoil?” that concluded Jefferson “would surely be disappointed and troubled” but “also would no doubt have found grounds for optimism.”
So much Jefferson! So, so much Jefferson!
“Welcome to U-Va.” said Tyler Frankenberg, 22, who graduated a few weeks ago and was a “Jefferson Scholar,” a full-ride scholarship program for top students. “This is literally how every discussion at U-Va. goes. I’m not kidding. It all goes back to: What would Thomas Jefferson say?”
True, Jefferson is a larger-than-life figure even when there isn’t controversy. The same is true at the College of William and Mary, where Jefferson attended — which annoys many U-Va. students.
In Charlottesville, Jefferson’s name is on street signs and plaques. His face is on T-shirts and bookmarks. He is discussed in classrooms, coffee shops and bars. Stories of his adventures — along with exaggerated tales and completely made up ones — are told to anyone who comes near the grounds. (Yes, grounds. It’s tradition at U-Va. to despise the word “campus.”)
“I’m always struck by the way the students there seemed to feel that they had founded the university along with Jefferson, just as William and Mary students feel like they attend class with him,” said David L. Holmes, a newly retired William and Mary religious studies professor and author of “The Faiths of the Founding Fathers” who lives in Charlottesville.
And that’s perfectly normal, Holmes said: “Every college in the U.S. cites its worthies.”
In other words, if you don’t know that Jefferson founded U-Va., then you don’t know U-Va. And that might be why everyone is clinging to him right now.
“To me it shows that everybody who has been vocal on this issue has a genuine care for the university,” Frankenberg said. “It gives me hope.”
(FYI: I put together a Pinterest board of “Thomas Jefferson sightings at UVA.”)
U-Va. president brings real world into the classroom (January 18)
Boylan Heights bar at center of U-Va. drinking scene (February 21)