Thomas Jefferson’s university was founded in 1819 as an auspicious institution, an “academical village” surrounding a building modeled after the Roman Pantheon with a strict honor code and a deep commitment to traditions and public service.
This week? The image linked to Mr. Jefferson’s University looks like it’s from way back in our nation’s shameful history — a bloodied young African American man, thrown to the ground for a picayune alleged offense.
That disturbing photo of Martese Johnson, the 20-year-old University of Virginia student who got turned away from an Irish pub at the end of St. Patrick’s Day revels, is another sign that something is seriously wrong in Charlottesville.
Murderous love, epic power struggles, gang rapes/not-gang-rapes, kidnapping/killing and now, a bloody arrest for an alcohol infraction? No other university in the nation is producing more sensation and scandal right now.
On Monday, the school was front and center again as the Charlottesville police announced that their investigators found no evidence of an alleged fraternity gang-rape described in Rolling Stone magazine.
The string of events at U-Va. sounds more like the season lineup for the Bravo Network than news from a highly selective “public Ivy” where all students must memorize the code of honor, and many write this pledge on the top of every assignment and exam: “On my honor, I pledge that I have neither given nor received help on this assignment.”
Traditions on “Grounds,” as the U-Va. campus is always called, matter a great deal — sometimes too much. The university didn’t admit an African American student until 1950 — and that was after a lawsuit. And it was one of the last public universities in the country to allow women to enroll freely. In 1970, again, after legal action.
There is something called the “Charlottesville Curse.” And I didn’t make that up.
It’s what the North Carolina Tar Heels called their gridiron losing streak against U-Va., in a rivalry that dates back to an 1892 football game (Virginia won). But maybe it’s time to expand that idea beyond the football field, because one of America’s finest and oldest universities is totally bedeviled.
But wait, maybe football does have something to do with it. Because the Tar Heels declared the curse broken Oct. 16, 2010, when they beat the Cavaliers and began their five-year winning streak.
That was not long after U-Va.’s streak of dark and bizarre events got rolling.
On May 3, 2010, Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love was killed by her on-again, off-again boyfriend George Huguely, also a lacrosse player.
After a sensational trial that sent Huguely to prison, the university’s leadership provided the drama. University President Teresa A. Sullivan was served her walking papers after getting knifed by the Board of Visitors because she wasn’t making the university flashy or cashy enough. Sullivan survived, but, whew, what a furor.
This past year has been the worst of all. First, in September, 18-year-old sophomore Hannah Graham went missing. A month later, her remains were found. Jesse L. Matthew Jr., 33, was arrested, and he was later linked to the investigation of another young woman’s killing — Morgan Harrington, 20, a Virginia Tech student — who was last seen on U-Va.’s campus in 2009 at a Metallica concert.
And then Rolling Stone magazine published the story of “Jackie,” a student who said she was violently gang-raped at a fraternity party — a story that shocked the nation and set off a wave of angst at U-Va.
The story turned out to be false. But Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo said Monday that although there’s no evidence to support the gang-rape allegation, they aren’t closing the investigation.
“It’s a disservice to Jackie,” Longo told reporters at yet another televised news conference about U-Va. He noted that there is no statute of limitations for sexual assault. And he said that just because the Rolling Stone article’s version of events is false, “that doesn’t mean something terrible didn’t happen to Jackie that night.”
On top of all that? The Cavaliers were knocked out of the basketball playoffs this weekend, and The Post’s front page Monday had a most appropriate metaphor for the state of Mr. Jefferson’s University: a photo of U-Va. players hanging their heads low.
It’s time for U-Va. to break the curse plaguing it. Not by clinging to traditions that exclude or waxing nostalgic for the days when the university was all-white and all-male.
But rather, the university will flourish if it holds to its founding principles: honor, academic rigor, respect and integrity.
You know, the stuff you don’t see on Bravo.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the university has an iconic building modeled after the Parthenon.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.