When Harvard historian and renowned Thomas Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed abruptly resigned from the board of the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the Founding Father’s Monticello estate-turned-museum weeks ago, academics, donors, visitors, neighbors and the curious had one burning question:
Since then, sources have told The Daily Progress that Gordon-Reed left in protest over decisions made by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s new president, fellow Harvard professor Jane Kamensky.
Gordon-Reed — whose extensive list of credentials as a celebrated Jefferson scholar includes a Pulitzer Prize for one of her books, “The Hemingses of Monticello” — was concerned by personnel decisions made by the new leadership.
“I don’t think [her concern] was about how Monticello interprets slavery, for example,” said one source familiar with the matter who asked not to be named. “It had to do with staffing.”
More specifically, sources say it had to do with Frank Cogliano, a University of Edinburgh professor and the interim director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello.
“I think Cogliano is in a line of scholarship that probably Annette felt loyal to and supportive of,” one person said.
A separate source who also asked not to be named offered more details, details the chair of the foundation board, Tobias Dengel, denies.
According to that source, when debating who to name as its new president, the foundation’s board was split between Cogliano and Kamensky, with Kamensky ultimately winning out. The Daily Progress was unable to confirm this account. Dengel and board member L.D. Britt recalled that the vote was unanimous.
But the board, like other governing bodies at foundations, colleges and corporations, prefers unanimity when it comes to votes made public.
“That’s how it usually is,” said Britt. “Any sort of discontent is dissolved, and you make it unanimous.”
The source said that after Kamensky accepted the job, Dengel called Cogliano to ask if he’d like to be named permanent director of the center. Cogliano said he would. Dengel informed Kamensky of the agreement, who “refused to allow it,” according to the second source.
Gordon-Reed considered this a “red flag,” but other board members ignored her concerns and “disrespected” her, the source said.
The final straw apparently occurred in November, when the board held an event to celebrate Kamensky’s acceptance. Cogliano was among those invited.
“Just before the event transpired, Cogliano was disinvited from attending by interim President Gardiner Hallock, because Kamensky did not want the runner-up there,” said the source.
Cogliano declined an interview request from The Daily Progress, and Hallock could not be reached for comment.
Dengel, who is also president of Charlottesville-based tech company WillowTree Apps, said the source’s account is inaccurate.
“I’m not sure where you’re getting your information from but Jane was the unanimous first choice of the search committee and was unanimously approved by the Board,” Dengel said in a text message.
He also denied ever asking Cogliano to be the permanent director at the center.
“I have never offered a job or permanent role at Monticello or the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to anyone besides Gardiner Hallock as Interim President and Jane Kamensky as President and that includes the permanent director role at ICJS,” Dengel wrote. “It is the mandate of the Board (and almost any Board) to select the President and then the President selects his or her leadership team.”
It wasn’t just Gordon-Reed who was upset Cogliano was not named director; the source said two members of the center’s advisory committee, Patrick Griffin and Peter Onuf, resigned upon learning that Cogliano did not get the job.
Griffin declined to comment to The Daily Progress, but Onuf confirmed the claim in an email.
“I resigned because of my disappointment that Frank Cogliano was not kept on as Saunders Director at the ICJS,” Onuf said, adding that the two are good friends and collaborating on a book together.
“He’s a fine scholar and has excellent connections in the community of Jefferson and Early American Republic scholars at home and abroad. He would have played a vital role for the ICJS in the forthcoming celebration of the Declaration’s 250th [anniversary],” wrote Onuf, who is the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia.
Cogliano remains the center’s interim director. His contract with the foundation expires at the end of June.
Gordon-Reed sent The Daily Progress a statement about her resignation. While not providing specifics on her exit, she noted that she has been involved with Monticello for three decades.
“The choice to leave the Board and all the other committees I was on there was wrenching. I very much enjoyed working with the colleagues and friends I made during these endeavors,” she wrote. “I wouldn’t have walked away from that without good cause.”
“That says it all,” said Britt upon hearing the “without good cause” portion of the statement.
Britt, who said he is not particularly active on the board, first learned of Gordon-Reed’s resignation from the foundation. He called it “surprising” and said the Harvard scholar was a strong and well-respected member.
“It’s a huge loss. You’ve got to be kidding. She’s the author of the Hemings family book and world renowned and brings diversity to the board,” said Britt, former president of the American College of Surgeons. “I don’t care how you look at it. It’s a huge loss.”
Gordon-Reed sent board members a message announcing her resignation.
“It was a politically correct note, but I knew there was something,” he recalled. “It was well written, but you could tell she had some problems, I think with the international division.”
For Britt, the resignation was part of a concerning trend. He joined the board more than eight years ago and feels things have not been functioning properly for the foundation in recent years.
“I was on the board when the foundation was doing very well, and all of a sudden, we had some problems. I started seeing people retire, started seeing them go to other jobs, and then [former President] Leslie Bowman leaves. That was not planned,” he said.
There have been roughly a dozen high-profile departures at the foundation over the past 18 months, both before and after Kamensky was named its president in October. The list includes the foundation’s chief financial officer, its human resources director, its retail sales director, its development director, its planning director and Gabriele Rausse, the man known as the “Father of Virginia Wine” who was Monticello’s director of gardens and grounds, overseeing the vegetable gardens, orchards, woodlands and vineyards that replicate some of what was planted by the third president.
And then there is Gordon-Reed.
“For her to abruptly resign spoke volumes for me and makes me even more detached from the foundation. I’m on the board, but I’m a little more detached and concerned. There’s something going on. It just doesn’t feel right,” he said.
Britt shared concern that the foundation lacks transparency and clear communication. He had not been alerted of a previous story published in The Daily Progress, which first floated the possibility that Gordon-Reed resigned because of Cogliano not being named permanent director.
“I shouldn’t have to have you tell me that an article is out there about Monticello. They should’ve told me that. Those are the concerns I have. I feel we don’t have the transparency we had when I first started,” he said. “You’re telling me things I should know as a board member.”
“It’s nothing against the foundation. I’m just saying there’s some kinks in the armor I can’t explain,” Britt continued. “We’re a nonprofit organization. It’s not like we’re some sort of clandestine group.”
He cautioned against any suggestion the recent departures are the result of Kamensky’s hiring, noting that many occurred before she was named president. Instead, he suggested the focus should be on senior members of the board.
“These are things that are derivatives possibly of board leadership,” he said. “Members who have been there for years, and the previous and current chair.”
“You’re not going to find answers with the current president because she’s brand new,” Britt said.
For her part, Kamensky said any questions about her hiring would be best answered by Dengel.
“I believe that good leadership begins with listening and learning, and that is my current priority. Part of my mandate is to think about how we at Monticello can best accomplish our highest goals, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if that didn’t include the standard practice of strategically reviewing key departments,” she told The Daily Progress in an email.
As for the next director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies?
“A visiting committee of scholars expert in the broad areas of ICJS’s excellence, comprised almost entirely of members recommended to me by ICJS staff, will engage in discussions with staff and educators across the campus in late April,” she said.
Gordon-Reed’s statement did not mention Kamensky or Cogliano.
“Despite my concerns about the future direction of the Foundation, my greatest hope is that it will continue to tell the story of Jefferson, the primary author of the American Declaration of Independence, the third American president, and the founder of UVA, and the stories of the hundreds of enslaved people who lived and labored at Monticello,” she wrote.
The first unnamed source understood “future direction” to mean concerns about the new president.
“I don’t blame [Kamensky]. A new director can bring on people she chooses,” the source said. “But then again as director you also don’t want to alienate your most influential board members. So, it’s a hard one.”
Dengel did not agree with Gordon-Reed’s assessment.
“As chair of the board I obviously do not share her concerns,” he said. “I’m very excited about the direction of the foundation.”
Britt said he hopes that foundation leadership will do a better job communicating with board members and said that the attention on the institution, including Gordon-Reed’s sudden resignation, is warranted given how much money moves through the foundation that generated $56.9 million in revenue in 2022 and expensed $39.5 million that same year.
“A lot of money goes toward the foundation, and I think donors need to know,” he said. “If there are issues, they need to fix them. I don’t know that they are.”