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Senate Democrats signal opposition to Youngkin pick for UVA board


Senate Democrats signal opposition to Youngkin pick for UVA board

Jan 31, 2023 | 6:27 pm ET
By Graham Moomaw
Senate Democrats signal opposition to Youngkin pick for UVA board
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia. (Style Weekly)

Democrats are indicating they might refuse to confirm a businessman Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin appointed to the University of Virginia’s governing board, a sign of an escalating fight over who should have a say in the governance of the state’s flagship public university.

At a state Senate committee meeting Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers removed UVA Board of Visitors member Bert Ellis from a list of Youngkin appointments the General Assembly is set to approve in the coming days.

Youngkin appointed Ellis, who runs a Georgia-based investment firm and lives in Hilton Head, South Carolina, to the UVA board last summer for a term set to expire in 2026. Ellis is also involved with the Jefferson Council, a conservative-leaning alumni group that says it’s “dedicated to preserving the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, the Lawn, the Honor Code, and the intellectual diversity one would expect from Mr. Jefferson’s university.”

Ellis came under fire from students in 2020 following reports that he had brought a razor blade to campus grounds in the hopes of removing a “F— UVA” sign a student had put up on the door of one of the school’s prestigious Lawn residences. 

The Cavalier Daily, UVA’s student newspaper, recently published an editorial calling on the Senate to block Ellis’ appointment, pointing to its own reporting about actions Ellis took nearly 50 years ago when he was involved with a student group responsible for organizing debates and other on-campus events.

After Tuesday’s committee meeting, Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, expressed strong reservations about voting to confirm Ellis despite having several meetings with him. Deeds, whose district includes UVA, motioned to have Ellis stricken from the appointment list.

“He’s a nice guy. He certainly cares about the university and I’ve been extremely impressed by that,” Deeds said. “But I just don’t think a 60-something-year-old man who goes to the grounds with a razor blade of any kind in his pocket intent on taking something off a student’s door, I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

State Health Commissioner Colin M. Greene, who was formally reprimanded by the State Board of Health last year after downplaying the significance of systemic racism as a driver of health disparities, was also removed from the list of Youngkin appointees set to be considered by the Senate. In a more technical change, the Democrat-led committee also corrected the official title of the state’s chief diversity officer to restore the word “equity” after the Youngkin administration attempted to replace it with the term “opportunity.”

The Democratic lawmakers’ decision to remove Ellis from the list came despite an endorsement of him by one of UVA’s most prominent figures: political analyst Larry Sabato.

In an email some General Assembly members received Monday, Sabato, the founder and director of UVA’s Center for Politics, said he has known Ellis since the 1970s, when the two men attended the university together as undergraduates.

“Bert and I have different political takes on quite a few subjects, but I know Bert to be loyal to the university and dedicated to its best interests,” Sabato wrote in the email obtained by The Virginia Mercury. “He’s proven as much many times.”

Sabato, an often-vocal critic of Youngkin, went on to say that he has had “lengthy talks about higher education policy” with Ellis and believes “his point of view should have representation on the Board of Visitors.”

Sabato did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Deeds said he had spoken to Sabato and several others from the Charlottesville community about the Ellis appointment.

“But the emails and stuff that I’ve gotten from the district are pretty overwhelmingly in favor of the action I took,” Deeds said.

Any appointments Youngkin makes between General Assembly sessions have to be confirmed by the state Senate, where Democrats have a 22-18 majority.

In its reporting on Ellis, UVA’s student paper has called attention to the role Ellis played decades ago in organizing a debate that pitted a white eugenicist against a Black biologist on the topic of race and IQ. A letter to the paper’s editor from an alumnus who attended UVA with Ellis also accused him of refusing to help the Gay Student Union bring a gay-rights activist to the school to speak.

Ellis has a documented history of racist, homophobic and harmful decisions,” the Cavalier Daily wrote in a Jan. 28 editorial that noted his appointment had drawn opposition from several student and faculty groups. “This goes beyond politics. Our identities are not up for debate. Any individual who isn’t capable of seeing the humanity in each of us should not be allowed to hold a leadership position within our community.”

Conservative commentators have defended Ellis by arguing that hosting a debate featuring a controversial speaker should not be construed as an endorsement of those beliefs.

“The vendetta against Ellis amounts to character assassination,” writer James Bacon said in a recent post published by the Jefferson Council. “The portrayal of him is so one-sided as to make him unrecognizable.”

Youngkin’s office declined to comment on the move to slow down or block Ellis’ confirmation. Ellis did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said she’s not sure what her caucus will do if the full Senate ends up taking a vote on whether Ellis deserves to be on the UVA board.

“I probably can’t support him,” said McClellan, a graduate of the UVA School of Law. “I’m concerned about some of his behavior.”