CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —The University of Virginia president defended her use of Thomas Jefferson quotations after a group of students and professors criticized her, saying Jefferson shouldn’t be used as a “moral compass” because he was a slave owner.
School president Teresa Sullivan quoted Jefferson in statements made to the campus community before and after Donald Trump’s election, urging students in one email to remember their own responsibility in the world, local media reported.
“By coincidence, on this exact day 191 years ago — November 9, 1825, in the first year of classes at U.Va. — Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that University of Virginia students ‘are not of ordinary significance only: they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes.’ I encourage today’s U.Va. students to embrace that responsibility,” Sullivan wrote last week.
In response, assistant psychology professor Noelle Hurd drafted a letter denouncing Sullivan’s use of the quotes. More than 400 faculty members and students signed it.
“Though we realize that some members of our university community may be inspired by quotes from Jefferson, we also realize that many of us are deeply offended by attempts on behalf of our administration to guide our moral behavior through their use,” the letter stated.
According to the letter, using quotes from the school’s founder “undermines the messages of unity, equality, civility, and inclusivity” that Sullivan was trying to convey.
Sullivan wrote Monday that she supports their right to express their opinions and that quoting Jefferson doesn’t indicate she agrees with all of his actions, thoughts or politics.
“I fully endorse their right to speak out on issues that matter to all of us, including the University’s complicated Jeffersonian legacy,” Sullivan wrote. “Quoting Jefferson (or any historical figure) does not imply an endorsement of all the social structures and beliefs of his time.”