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Email Sparks Controversy



University of Virginia


Email Sparks Controversy

Teresa Sullivan abandons students after Tuesday night protest.

Staci McKean


Late Tuesday night, a group of students and faculty surrounded the statue of Thomas Jefferson. They covered the statue of the University's founder with a shroud in protest of the University's response to the rallies of August 11th and 12th, as well as the inaction in regards to the demands produced by the Black Student Alliance after the August rallies.

Chants of "Black Lives Matter," and "No Nazis, no KKK, no fascist UVA," rang out as students climbed onto the statue and covered it. The moment was powerful for all those in attendance. However, just after 11:30 the next day, emails from Teresa Sullivan in response to the event were sent to both students and alumni, denouncing the protest and announcing plans to name buildings after significant minority graduates from the University. Pinn Hall will be dedicated in honor of Vivian W. Pinn, M.D., a renowned African-American graduate from the School of Medicine, and another meeting is planned to discuss honoring W.W. Yenn, "the first student from China to graduate from the University."

Despite Sullivan's attempts to feign progress with the dedications, students who protested Tuesday night were less than happy about the statements made in the two emails. Both the email sent to students and sent to alumni address an individual who was arrested for public intoxication, but fails to state whether that individual was involved with the protest.

Because of it's context, it appears as if Sullivan was stating that the intoxicated individual was one of the protestors. Participants, however, claim otherwise. A statement from the UVA Police indicates that the individual was not only unaffiliated with the protesters, but was an alt-right supporter. His name is Brian Lambert, and he was arrested for public intoxication. He was also open-carrying at the time.

On 9/12/17, at 10:15 p.m. in the area of the Rotunda, UPD arrested a Mr. Brian Lambert of Charlottesville for public intoxication. Mr. Lambert was legally “open carrying” a firearm at the time of his arrest and was not in violation of state law. Mr. Lambert also has no affiliation with the University and was not in violation of any University policy. Mr. Lambert will appear in the Albemarle County General District Court for this charge.

Willis Jenkins, a Professor of the University's Department of Religious Studies, was in attendance at the protest Tuesday night. "Faculty were asked by students to show their support by witnessing their action and listening to their statement and demands," Jenkins said.

While at the protest, Jenkins states that the group was approached by the armed white supremacist. "...when he approached, I moved to engage him and kept him calmly occupied until I could signal for UPD to come."

"It’s very important to understand the threats faced by students speaking out, especially students of color. Her letter elides that point," Jenkins states in regards to Sullivan's emails, "While not all faculty would have protested in just the same way with the same words, most of us (probably all of us who were there) would agree with those student that the University needs to undertake a much more robust and serious reckoning with its relations to white supremacy. President Sullivan’s responses show that she has not yet appreciated the gravity of that message."

Another inaccuracy in Sullivan's emails comes when she states that University officials removed the shroud over the statue. Eyewitness accounts of the removal claim otherwise.

Lucila Crena, a PhD Student in the Religious Studies department recalls arriving back on the scene of the protest at approximately 11:10pm. At that time the statue was still covered, but Crena reports seeing counter-protestors attempting to remove the shroud.

"I saw John Miska with his cane trying to take down the shroud," Crena states, "helped by three to four students, one of whom climbed up and finished the job that Miska had started. Nowhere did we see any University staff of police."

The statement sent to alumni and friends of the University is even more surprising. Sullivan states that, "...about forty students held a part of this demonstration, they shrouded the Jefferson statue, desecrating ground that many of us consider sacred."

After relaying the removal of the shroud and the arrest of the intoxicated individual, Sullivan continues on to say that "these are facts of the situation, regardless of what you may read in media accounts of those who have their own agenda."

With this statement Sullivan vilifies the students, and claims that anyone stating otherwise on social media or through the news does so with a personal agenda. In other words, it would be fake news.

Sullivan's statement delegitimizes the important concerns of students and ignores the principal ideology many students rely on - an accurate truth. The emails not only contain misleading and inaccurate statements, but they also shut down any response regarding accurate knowledge of the events.

It is still unclear whether Sullivan made the statements with the intention of discrediting the students or not, however, many who were in attendance, and other students at the University, feel as though something should be done in response to the backlash.

Another professor at the University, Janet Spittler, who was present at both the protest and the removal of the shroud, said that "to phrase it in a way that insinuates one of the student protesters was drunk is reprehensible. Maybe this was unintentional. If so, it deserves both a correction and an apology."
Evelyn Wang, a current student at the University, expresses that "from the student perspective it feels like she intentionally included falsehoods that compromised student safety and wellbeing."

An anonymous counter-statement published later that day states that the emails are "abhorrent and dangerously misleading. It is incredibly irresponsible for our University president to leave out key details..."

At this time, President Sullivan has not made any comments regarding the contents of her emails. We have received contact from the President's office following a request for a statement, but have not yet received a formal statement about the email and the allegations of misinformation.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Brynn Jefferson.
Cover photo and all other photos courtesy of Eze Amos Photography.