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A campaign is calling on UVa's rector to resign. But who is funding it?

On March 26, a truck towing a large digital billboard made its way around the University of Virginia.

“Rector Robert Hardie won’t confront antisemitism,” the LED screen read at times. Hardie is “unfit to lead UVa” and should “resign now,” it read at other times.

Who or what is responsible for the campaign remains unclear.

University spokeswoman Bethanie Glover told The Daily Progress in a prepared statement that the billboard’s message was “false and offensive” and that the school is working to uncover who hired the truck.

To be clear, neither the truck nor its message are in violation of any local, state or federal law.

“We are not investigating that because there’s nothing to investigate,” Charlottesville Police Chief Michael Kochis told The Daily Progress. “From what I can see, it’s somebody expressing their First Amendment rights. There’s no crime to investigate.”

The Daily Progress reached out to the UVa Police Department to see if that agency had been tasked with uncovering who was behind the truck. No one responded.

Glover, however, maintained the university is looking into the matter, regardless of whether a crime occurred.

“We certainly are interested in the question of who paid to display false information on the side of an anonymous truck and drive circles around Grounds, as anyone would be,” she said.

That decision, to spend man-hours uncovering who paid for a mobile billboard for less than 24 hours, has left some people “speechless.”

Joel Nied is the father of a Jewish student at UVa. He told The Daily Progress that he found the university’s robust response to the truck “unbelievable,” considering what he characterized as the school’s weak response to the matter raised by the truck: “antisemitism on Grounds.”

Nied and a handful of other Jewish parents have been petitioning the school since November to address a spike in reported antisemitic attacks on their children in the wake of Palestinian terrorist group Hamas’ Oct. 7 strike on the Jewish state of Israel.

Hamas killed roughly 1,200 people in its initial attack. Since then, Israel has laid siege to the Hamas-controlled territory of Gaza. An estimated 33,000 are now dead, an overwhelming majority of those Palestinians. Hamas still holds more than 100 hostages it took on Oct. 7, the overwhelming majority of those Israelis.

As the world’s only Jewish nation-state continues to wage a war in the Middle East, antisemitic attacks have increased stateside, specifically on college campuses. At UVa, Jewish students have reported being slapped, spit on, threatened, called “kike” and “filthy Jew.” A total of 19 “reports related to potential antisemitism” have been filed by students, faculty and staff at the university between the start of the 2023 fall semester and Jan. 1 of this year.

Both UVa and the U.S. Department of Education have started looking into the reports.

“In response to reports of alleged antisemitic speech or conduct, University officials have connected with reporters, offered them resources, and sought additional information about their reports so that we can investigate and hold people responsible if necessary,” UVa spokesman Brian Coy told The Daily Progress in March.

But Jewish students, faculty and parents say the university’s response has been found wanting.

After they asked to speak to university administrators directly, UVa President Jim Ryan agreed to meet but only with four parents and four children. He requested their meeting be confidential.

Four sets of students and parents agreed to the terms and presented their complaints to Ryan as well as Provost Ian Baucom, Dean Christa Acampora, Vice President of Student Affairs Kenyon Bonner and chief of staff Margaret Noland.

What has struck Nied is that in spite of the meetings and reports and investigations, he said he has not heard a full-throated condemnation of antisemitism. What he has heard is a full-throated condemnation of a mobile billboard.

“It’s just a truck rolling around on a public space, isn’t that free speech?” he asked. “This is clearly a condemnation for something that’s happening on a public street. I don’t agree or disagree with what the truck said, but how come the university condemns this?”

The campaign’s target, UVa Rector Robert Hardie, has not been party to the back-and-forths between Jewish families and university administrators. However, he was very much present for a back-and-forth about the back-and-forths at the school’s last Board of Visitors meeting. In fact, Glover said it was Hardie who requested a board "briefing on investigations on Grounds, and what the University is doing to care for members of the community," specifically regarding the reports of antisemitic attacks.

On Feb. 29, Baucom told the board what the university has been doing to cool tensions between students since the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, as hundreds have participated in marches, rallies, “teach-ins” and vigils for those on both sides of the war. He noted the university is offering academic programming and mental health services to students in need.

At the conclusion of Baucom’s remarks, board members took the opportunity to raise their concerns on the matter.

Douglas Wetmore is a UVa alumnus, a Richmond resident and the senior vice president for business development for Arizona-based health care technology firm Centauri Health Solutions. The board member, appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin in 2022, took particular issue with a recent student referendum on Grounds calling on UVa to divest from companies doing business in Israel. He called the nonbinding vote “one of the most shameful things to happen in the history of the university” and emphasized that such things only make Jewish and Israeli students at UVa feel more unsafe.

Wetmore said he had received “500 emails” from concerned parents.

“We need to distance ourselves categorically from horrible things like this referendum,” he told the board.

Fellow Youngkin appointee Dr. Stephen Long, president of Commonwealth Spine and Pain Specialists in Henrico County, and Thomas DePasquale, who founded Cerium Pharmaceuticals and was appointed by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, both expressed their disappointment in the referendum results.

Bert Ellis, one of the board’s more controversial figures, also chimed in.

Another Youngkin appointee and UVa alumnus, Ellis is the head of Atlanta-based Ellis Capital, the owner of Los Angeles television station KDOC-TV and the part-owner of the White Spot burger joint on the Corner in Charlottesville. He is also president and co-founder of the Jefferson Council, a conservative alumni organization “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,” according to that organization’s mission statement.

Ellis made headlines in 2020, before he was appointed to the board, for traveling to university Grounds with a razor blade in hand. According to his own account, he intended to use the blade to remove a sign that read “F—k UVa” that had been posted on a student’s dormitory door. Other accounts suggest he meant to threaten the student.

In the Rotunda meeting room at UVa on Feb. 29, Ellis told the board he had received several of the same emails as Wetmore.

“I totally agree that we should have discourse, and we should have civil discourse, and we should have open discourse,” he said. “But you cannot have a debate on our Grounds right now the way we are allowing the rules to be abused.”

Ellis complained that the school had not done anything to penalize students, specifically members of the Students for Justice in Palestine group, who he said are behind at least some of the attacks on Jewish students.

The conversation ended that day on a civil note, but the next day, when it was renewed, things did not go the same way.

On March 1, Ryan told board members that he had tried to remain neutral during the referendum. He said, if he were a student he would have voted against the referendum, but as university president it was not his place to weigh in on the matter.

The board then moved on to a presentation on artificial intelligence. But moments later, Ellis spoke up, asking to return to the prior conversation.

“I want to go back, Jim, to your opening remarks on the referendum. We have a huge antisemitic problem at this university,” Ellis said. “Those remarks … Is that it? Is that how we’re going to deal with it?”

Although Ellis addressed Ryan, it was Hardie who responded.

“We’re going to deal with that in closed session,” Hardie told him. “That’s a closed session item.”

Hardie advised Ellis that because the matter related to student safety it should not be discussed in open session.

“We have a huge antisemitic problem at this university,” said Ellis, who disagreed with the premise that the topic should be reserved for closed session. “It’s more than safety. They’re intimidated, they’ve been spit upon—”

Hardie then cut off Ellis.

“What you’re discussing right now is a student safety issue, and it will be discussed in closed session. Hard stop.”

When Ellis promised to continue bringing the matter up in open session, Hardie was frank: “Then you’ll be reprimanded.”

“Bring it on. Bring it on,” said Ellis to a board that had gone completely quiet. “You’re going to reprimand me for bringing up an issue with our Jewish community? Everybody knows about this, and we’re not doing anything about it?”

The tense exchange was brought to a close with a formal call to move the board into a closed session.

It didn’t take long for a video clip of the exchange to make it to social media, where it was shared by the Jefferson Council and other conservative alumni.

“This is what passes for free speech, civil discourse, and open discussion of divergent viewpoints at UVA BOV meetings presided over by Rector Hardie and President Ryan,” reads the Jefferson Council’s caption below the shared video.

Jefferson Council Executive Director Jim Bacon published a letter on the organization’s website a little more than a week after the meeting questioning the legality of the board’s decision to only discuss the matter in closed session.

“I’m not a legal expert in government transparency, but it looks to me like UVA violated state open-government law in calling the closed session,” wrote Bacon. “But I would welcome feedback from anyone with an expertise in this area to guide the Jefferson Council as we ponder whether to escalate our criticism of what was — whether legal or illegal — a grotesque lack of transparency at an institution supposedly committed to open inquiry.”

When The Daily Progress reached out to Bacon to comment on the current tension on the board and the campaign to have Hardie resign, his immediate response was an assurance that “the Jefferson Council had nothing to do with the truck, and we don’t know who was behind it.”

“We would agree that the Ryan administration’s approach to combating antisemitism at UVA has been grossly inadequate,” Bacon said. “Although we have criticized certain actions that Mr. Hardie has taken as rector, the Jefferson Council has not called for his resignation.”

Hardie has characterized much of that criticism as "baseless."

“The University Board of Visitors and the administration are united in our opposition to antisemitism and all forms of discrimination," the rector said in a prepared statement delivered to The Daily Progress by Glover. "We care deeply for our students and are committed to supporting all members of our community as we continue to work through a deeply difficult time that is affecting our community and countless others around the world. I reject the baseless attacks on the University, especially regarding a Board briefing I requested. The briefing included sensitive safety and student information, as well as details related to steps the University has taken to protect our community. That briefing needed to be shared in a confidential setting.”

While no person or party has been willing to admit their involvement in the campaign to have Hardie step down, Glover said the university believes whatever or whoever is behind that campaign is not on Grounds or affiliated with the university.

“There are groups outside of the University community who have a political interest in distorting the reality of how the University is supporting our students, faculty, and staff in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and ensuing war in Gaza,” Glover said.

Nied as well as other Jewish parents who have been in contact with The Daily Progress worry that Glover’s statement may be implicating them and, worse, playing with a dangerous antisemitic trope: a Jewish cabal controlling the media for political gain.

Nied maintained that the Jewish families expressing concern for their children are doing just that, and nothing more.

“It’s not a political ploy; it’s a tragic reality,” said Nied. “I don’t have a political agenda. I want students to feel safe walking around Grounds.”

This story has been updated with a statement from University of Virginia Rector Robert Hardie.


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