The recently confirmed University of Virginia Board of Visitors member who disparaged administrators and student groups in a series of text messages published in the Washington Post has apologized to his colleagues on the board. Students, he said, should not be expecting their own apology.
Bert Ellis addressed himself as the “elephant in the room” at the board’s Friday meeting, its last of the academic year and Ellis’ first as a confirmed board member.
“To all my colleagues, I offer my apology,” Ellis said. “Those were private and confidential messages but were still out of place. I am emotional and I have the occasion to do things that I would never expect to be on the front page of the Washington Post.”
When asked if he would apologize to the students and student groups he had targeted, Ellis said only, “No, that was fine.”
In text messages dated July 22 that he sent to fellow new members Stephen P. Long and Amanda Pillion, Ellis referred to members of the UVa Student Council and staffers at the Cavalier Daily student newspaper as “numnuts” and promised a “battle royale for the soul of UVa.”
Richmond-based author Jeff Thomas requested the texts via the Freedom of Information Act last August but did not receive them until he sued the university after it withheld the texts for months. Earlier this month, a Richmond judge ordered the university to turn over the messages, according to the Washington Post, which published their contents on Feb. 23.
Ellis and other board members were aware that their private correspondences regarding the university could be requested and published.
At the current board’s first meeting in August of last year, which Ellis was present for though not yet confirmed, the board was provided an overview on the status of UVa academics, sports, finances and health system – in addition to a presentation on board member responsibilities. As part of that presentation, they were told the Freedom of Information Act requires board members turn over electronic mentions of UVa, the Board of Visitors and any subsidiary of the university if anyone from the public requests them.
“I have learned my lesson about FOIA,” Ellis told the board on Friday. “I can’t put the genie back in the bottle, so all I can say is I’m sorry.”
Both Long and Pillion, who were in attendance Friday, declined an interview request from The Daily Progress.
Ellis is one of four new members to the board appointed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. The majority of the board, whose member serve staggered terms, was appointed by prior Democratic administrations.
Among them is Whittington W. Clement, who was appointed to the board by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2015 and serves as its rector. Clement was also targeted in Ellis’ texts.
In texts sent on July 20, also published by the Post, Ellis attacked a letter Clement had written to former board members.
“Have you read Whitt’s letter to the Visitors Emeritus?” Ellis wrote to Pillion and Long. “What a damn whitewash. Not even a mention of the decline of the honor system … under his watch, I might add. No mention of the crap from the university guides. It’s all good, Dorey, that’s how he and the rest of the gits in Ryan’s office see things. We have to change that.”
At the start of Friday’s meeting, Clement said that he had read the Post’s story on Ellis’ texts and doubted the Jeffersonian values of the man who wrote them.
“The rhetoric of those messages, particularly ones that disparage students, faculty and staff, really run contrary to the values that Thomas Jefferson sought to instill in this community and which we as members of the university’s governing board, in turn, try to impart on our students,” Clement said.
Ellis, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degree from UVa, 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 the organization’s website.
He is also a wealthy businessman: the head of Ellis Capital in Atlanta, a founding investor and board member of the WebMD platform, the owner of Los Angeles television station KDOC-TV and the part-owner of the White Spot burger restaurant on the Corner in Charlottesville.
Ellis’ appointment has faced pushback from students, faculty and staff at UVa.
Since last July, the Cavalier Daily, Student Council, Faculty Senate, United Campus Workers of Virginia union and University Democrats at UVa have all stood in opposition to Ellis joining the board, all citing the same 2020 “razor blade” incident.
Ellis sparked a public outcry in 2020 after 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 the Lawn room door of a student.
That incident also compelled state Sen. Creigh Deeds, a Democrat who represents UVa in the upper chamber of the General Assembly, to introduce a resolution that would have removed Ellis’ name from the list of Youngkin’s nominations to the Board of Visitors. The amendment would have required the General Assembly to vote on Ellis’ appointment separate from the other appointments, but it failed to gain enough support to pass.
Ellis has defended his actions in 2020 as free speech, while arguing that the notion the sign was protected as free speech is “incredibly stupid.”
At Friday’s meeting, Ellis nodded along as UVa President Jim Ryan read from the Virginia “Council of Presidents Statement on Free Speech,” which promotes “diversity of research and intellectual perspectives” while serving as a pledge to promote inclusivity, academic freedom, free expression and an environment that promotes civil discourse.
The board voted unanimously to adopt the resolution.
The UVa Board of Visitors is the ruling body of the university. The board makes decisions about tuition, property changes, academics and the health system and holds the authority to hire and fire the president of the university.
The board consists of 17 governor-appointed voting members who serve four-year terms, as well as nonvoting student and faculty representatives who serve one-year terms. Appointed board members are allowed to serve two consecutive terms if reappointed by the sitting governor.
Ellis, who began his term on June 30 of last year, will serve until the same date in 2026.
As the only person with the political power to appoint board members to public universities, the sitting governor of the commonwealth is the only person who can remove a sitting board member.
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