Bert Ellis, with two degrees from the University of Virginia, is a loyal alumnus. He has donated more than $10 million to his alma mater, and even co-owns a campus hangout, the Spot.
But he thinks the university is headed in the wrong direction. He objects to its emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion programs — saying the university is already diverse. And he loathes the university’s recent portrayal of its founder, and his hero, Thomas Jefferson.
Mr. Ellis co-founded a dissident alumni group, the Jefferson Council. And when Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, was elected governor of Virginia in 2021, largely on a pledge to overhaul education, Mr. Ellis saw an opening.
“This is our only opportunity to change/reverse the path to Wokeness that has overtaken our entire university,” he wrote in a post for the Jefferson Council.
Now Mr. Ellis, 69, is on the university’s board of trustees, appointed recently by Governor Youngkin.
Mr. Ellis is part of a growing and forceful movement fighting campus programs that promote diversity, equity and inclusion, known as D.E.I.
Politicians, activists and alumni who oppose the programs say they enforce groupthink, establish arbitrary diversity goals, lower standards and waste money that could go to scholarships. Lawmakers in 19 states have taken up legislation to limit or block university D.E.I. programs.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, has waged an all-out campaign to dismantle D.E.I. initiatives, calling them “hostile to academic freedom” and demanding their defunding. In North Carolina and South Carolina, lawmakers have demanded that public universities report the costs of D.E.I. In Texas, a new $300 billion state budget approved by the Legislature prohibits university spending on D.E.I.
In Virginia, Mr. Youngkin has chosen a less confrontational approach than Mr. DeSantis, but has moved to change the direction of the state’s flagship university, in part by appointing Mr. Ellis to the board.
A spokesman for the governor did not respond to questions about the administration’s plans for D.E.I. programs at the university but referred to a comment the governor made during a recent CNN Town Hall: “We have to celebrate excellence. We shouldn’t embrace equity at the expense of excellence.”
Attacks on D.E.I. come at a crucial pivot point. The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the next few months against race-conscious affirmative action. At Virginia, where admissions is highly competitive, such a ruling could radically lower the number of Black students, who currently make up about 7 percent of undergraduates, an increase of more than 200 Black students since 2015.
Among other demographic groups on campus, white students make up the largest share, 52 percent. Asian Americans make up 18 percent, and Hispanic American students comprise 7 percent of undergraduates.
Depending on the reach of the court’s ruling, D.E.I. programs could become more crucial in attracting and retaining Black and Hispanic students.
At the University of Virginia, that effort is burdened by its founder’s complicated legacy: Jefferson envisioned an enlightened academic village, yet the campus was built and staffed in part by enslaved laborers.
James E. Ryan, the university’s president, said he believes the majority of alumni feel the way he does — that diversity is desirable and needed.
“I haven’t heard anyone say we should have a community that is monolithic, unfair and unwelcoming,” he said in an interview.
Mr. Ryan said he wonders about the motives of the critics.
“Whether this is an effort to focus on the aspects of D.E.I. that seem to threaten academic freedom and push toward ideological conformity, or whether it’s an effort to turn back the clock to 1965 — it’s hard to know,” he said in an interview.
But for both sides, the D.E.I. debate cuts to a bigger question on many campuses today: What should a university should look like, value and honor?
The Diversity Plan
After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the University of Virginia, like many schools, responded to the call for racial justice. Mr. Ryan appointed a task force on racial equity that recommended investing more in the existing D.E.I. program.
The goals were ambitious, and included endowments for the African American studies center and equity programs, as well as matching funds for donors to support student scholarships.
The university wanted to double the number of professors from marginalized groups, increase the enrollment of students of color, and remove or reframe campus monuments, including contextualizing the university’s historical representation of Jefferson.
The price tag was equally ambitious: nearly $1 billion.
After the university board endorsed much of the plan, the official alumni magazine described it as “more diversity, less Confederacy.”
While the plans have not yet been fully funded or implemented, the university points to progress. The share of Black undergraduates has increased — to 7 percent of the undergraduate enrollment in 2022 from 6.7 percent in 2020. There are four new Black professors in the architecture program. Diversity efforts have become part of hiring and peer review evaluations, and departments are encouraged to train their workers on antiracism.
But at the Jefferson Council, the equity task force proposal “struck many people as really extreme,” said James A. Bacon Jr., executive director of the group, which now claims more than 1,400 members. “It laid out a whole vision for, in their minds, redressing past inequities in bringing a more woke regime to U.Va.”
And some were particularly concerned that the university wanted student enrollment to “better reflect” the state population, which is currently 20 percent Black.
In 2021, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, issued a report attacking the cost and effectiveness of D.E.I. programs and targeting the University of Virginia for “D.E.I. bloat.”
The university, it concluded, was tied for second in the nation, just behind the University of Michigan, in the number of D.E.I. employees, with 94.
The actual number of D.E.I. employees is about 40, according to Kevin G. McDonald, the University of Virginia’s vice president for diversity.
But as D.E.I. programs became a talking point on the right, the University of Virginia had become one of its prime exhibits.
On his first day in office, Governor Youngkin signed Executive Order Number One, banning the teaching of what he called “inherently divisive concepts,” including critical race theory, in public schools.
Two days later, he asked Edward J. Feulner, the founder of the Heritage Foundation, to lead a commission to screen new members for the state university boards.
Dr. Feulner said in an interview that reining in D.E.I. was a priority.
“You’re saying to yourself, ‘How many scholarships could the university give away instead of funding some nebulous department?’” Dr. Feulner said.
When the governor named Mr. Ellis, who heads the venture capital firm, Ellis Capital, as one of his first four board member appointments last year, the campus newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, started digging into his past.
It reported that, when he was in charge of campus speakers during the 1970s, Mr. Ellis had helped host a debate titled “The Correlation Between Race and Intelligence,” featuring a prominent eugenics supporter, William Shockley, over the objection of some Black students.
Another story revealed that, as a student, Mr. Ellis had turned down a request for a gay speaker.
Mr. Ellis, responding in an interview, said that the newspaper “spun” its coverage to present him as a “racist, a homophobe and a eugenicist.”
In fact, he says, Mr. Shockley debated Richard Goldsby, a Black biologist, who completely undermined his premise. “Goldsby absolutely slaughtered William Shockley in the debate,” Mr. Ellis said.
Faculty and students were more alarmed over a recent campus incident.
In 2020, a student had hung a sign on her dorm room door that protested slavery, genocide and “KKKops” — and included an expletive directed at the university.
Her door faced out, onto The Lawn, a grassy court that was designed by Thomas Jefferson and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Mr. Ellis appealed to Mr. Ryan, the president, to have the sign removed, which the university declined, citing the student’s free-speech rights.
“I decided that, shoot, if the university wasn’t going to take it down, I’d take it down,” Mr. Ellis said.
He said that he got as far as knocking on the student’s door. But after campus representatives asked him to desist, he left without carrying out his mission.
The incident sparked two opposing reactions.
The faculty senate voted in November 2022 to censure Mr. Ellis. The incident raised “the need to respect students’ ability to express themselves and also the safety of students,” Patricia A. Jennings, chairwoman of the senate, said.
For Mr. Ellis and other alumni, the student’s protest, along with the racial equity task force, spurred the formation of the Jefferson Council, according to Mr. Bacon, the group’s executive director.
In January 2023, the council funded another D.E.I. report, which concluded that the university employed 77 D.E.I. administrators, at a cost of $6.9 million. The university also disputes those findings.
The next month, Mr. Ellis’s appointment to the university board was narrowly confirmed by the General Assembly, despite student protests.
The Jefferson Legacy
More conflict is likely in store.
The university plans to add context to a Jefferson statue in front of the university Rotunda.
Mr. Ryan said that he envisions a QR code at the statue with additional information about Jefferson’s legacy. The language will likely include references to Jefferson’s slaveholding.
Still, Mr. Ryan pledged that “as long as I am president, the University of Virginia will not walk away from Thomas Jefferson.”
The Jefferson Council is wary and has taken to monitoring campus tours. In a detailed document, it characterized the tours as providing an “indefensibly negative account of Jefferson.” Tour guides are “instructed to convey” that Jefferson fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemings, according to the document.
“The history of U.Va. is presented as one long oppression narrative,” Mr. Bacon, of the Jefferson Council, said.
Ceci Cain, who until recently served as the student government president, helped lead the opposition to Mr. Ellis’s confirmation. She said that some in the university community embrace an “unhealthy deification” of Mr. Jefferson, adding, “That can be coded language for a lot of things.”
There are signs that political fissures, driven by the D.E.I. debate, are emerging among members of the university’s board, whose 17 voting members have traditionally been regarded as a rubber stamp for the university administration.
In a March meeting, James B. Murray Jr., a board member, raised questions about the diversity statements requested of new hires. “We seem to be directing viewpoint conformity,” he said. “It’s positively Orwellian.”
Mr. Murray, a venture capital executive, was first appointed to the board by Gov. Terry McAuliffe and reappointed by Gov. Ralph Northam, both Democrats.
Some faculty have also questioned the statements. A recent posting for a creative writing professor, for example, requests a declaration of the candidate’s “teaching philosophy and experience working on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion and/or with diverse populations.”
Loren E. Lomasky, a philosophy professor, said the statements undermine the integrity of the hiring process.
“If you’re hiring somebody who is a Shakespeare scholar, it’s what they have to say that’s interesting about Shakespeare that should be taken into consideration,” he said.
Brian Coy, a university spokesman, said the diversity statements are not required. But in several recent job postings, they were part of a package applicants were asked to submit.
In its next meeting in June, the university’s board is expected to receive a full report on the D.E.I. operation, Mr. Ellis announced during a meeting of the Jefferson Council this month.
“It would appear that it’s 100 or more people, all of which have been hired in the last two to three years,” Mr. Ellis said, differing from the university’s official account of its D.E.I. staff. “This is an exploding bureaucracy and they’re reaching into every aspect of our university.”
Mr. Ellis may soon have new allies. By June, Mr. Youngkin is expected to add four people to the university board, controlling a near majority.
At least one member of the Jefferson Council is said to be under consideration.