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U-Va. board member apologizes for disparaging text messages

‘All I can say is I’m sorry,’ Bert Ellis told colleagues on the University of Virginia’s governing board

Bert Ellis, a member of the University of Virginia’s governing board, on the Charlottesville campus in July 2022. (Jason Lappa for The Washington Post)
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The University of Virginia board member who disparaged administrators and certain student groups in text messages to colleagues that recently came to light apologized Friday at a board meeting in Charlottesville.

Bert Ellis, who joined U-Va.’s governing Board of Visitors last year, sent a series of combative texts during the summer to allies and three other board members who, like him, were appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R). Redacted versions of the texts were obtained last month by a Richmond-based author, Jeff Thomas, under the state Freedom of Information Act. The Washington Post disclosed the text conversations in a Feb. 23 article.

In texts, Youngkin appointee plots ‘battle royale for the soul of UVA’

In one text, Ellis pointed out the webpage of a vice provost and wrote: “Check out this numnut who works for [U-Va. Provost Ian] Baucom and has nothing to do but highlight slavery at UVA.” In others, he referred to unnamed people who work for U-Va. President James E. Ryan as “schmucks” and referred to members of the Student Council and the Cavalier Daily student newspaper as “these numnuts.”

Those and other texts drawn from Ellis’s cellphone shook the 26,000-student university and its community of faculty, staff and alumni.

On Friday, Ellis appeared contrite as he spoke to the board in a meeting shown via a live stream.

“As the elephant in the room, may I once again to all of my colleagues offer my apology,” Ellis said. “You know, those were private and confidential messages that were still out of place. I am emotional, and I have occasion to do things that I would never expect to be on the front page of The Washington Post. I have learned my lesson about FOIA, but I can’t put the genie back in the bottle. So all I can say is I’m sorry.”

Ellis, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from U-Va., is an entrepreneur and investor who runs a business based in Atlanta. He co-founded and leads a group of U-Va. alumni and others known as the Jefferson Council, which opposes limits on free speech and seeks to protect the legacy of Thomas Jefferson at the public university he founded in 1819.

The U-Va. board has 19 members who serve staggered terms. As of now, the majority were appointed by Youngkin’s Democratic predecessors. Among them is Whittington W. Clement, who holds the title of rector and leads the board. Ellis also criticized Clement in one of the texts, calling a letter the rector wrote to former board members “a damn whitewash.”

As he opened the meeting, Clement noted that he had read The Post article about Ellis’s texts.

“The rhetoric of those messages, particularly ones that disparage students, faculty and staff, really run contrary to the values that Thomas Jefferson sought to instill in this community and which we as members of the university’s governing board, in turn, try to impart on our students,” Clement said. He also praised the “professionalism” of the U-Va. finance department, which was the subject of a text exchange Ellis had with a senior university official.

Another board member, Thomas A. DePasquale, who was first appointed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2016, urged colleagues to avoid “Monday morning quarterbacking” of the U-Va. administration. “It’s just destructive,” he said.

After DePasquale finished, Clement sought to move past the awkward moment. “So let’s get on with our agenda,” the rector said.