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UVa Board of Visitors tables renaming of Alderman Library

The University of Virginia has deferred a decision to rename the school’s largest library until next year.

The Board of Visitors’ Buildings and Grounds Committee had been scheduled to vote on the renaming of Alderman Library Thursday.

The library is named after Edwin Alderman, the university’s first president who served from 1905 until 1931.

UVa’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, had imagined in 1819 that the school could be directed solely by a board of visitors. But over the decades, a growing student body, increasing administrative costs and discord between the board and faculty prompted the visitors to turn to Alderman, who was serving as president of Tulane University when he was invited to move to Charlottesville to take the post.

Alderman, like many of the top-ranking White academics of his age, was a proponent of eugenics, a movement devoted to improving the human species through the control of hereditary factors.

And while eugenics popularized many health care practices accepted today — such as birth control, prenatal screenings and marriage restrictions prohibiting close relations from reproducing — the movement has become more associated with its controversial applications — such as compulsory sterilization, racial segregation and forced abortions and pregnancies.

Alderman led the charge to transform UVa into a “leading eugenics research center,” according to a 2018 university report detailing the school’s history of racism.

“In the first half of the 20th century, eugenics was a required course,” in the words of UVa biology professor Keith Kozminski.

Research conducted at the university was used to support both the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which prohibited interracial marriage, and the Eugenical Sterilization Act of 1924, which called for the sterilization of institutionalized persons "afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy."

Alderman remained president of UVa until his death in 1931 and is buried in the UVa Cemetery.

The university’s library constructed on the west edge of the Lawn in 1937 was dedicated the next year in Alderman’s name.

But since that time, several of the buildings at UVa named after its prominent eugenicists have been renamed, including Lewis House, Jordan Hall and the Barringer Wing at the UVa Medical Center West Complex. Ivey Foreman Lewis and Harvey Jordan both served as deans at UVa. Paul Brandon Barringer served as president of the faculty.

As the university has pursued a $121 million renovation and expansion of Alderman Library, which has shuttered the building since March 2020 and is set to be completed in January 2024, it has been considering renaming the structure after Edgar Shannon.

Shannon served as fourth president of the university between 1959 and 1974.

Shannon’s tenure at the university stands in stark contrast to Alderman’s.

He left nearby Farmington Country Club over its refusal to admit Black members and worked to increase Black student admissions. He also initiated undergraduate coeducation, admitting the first women onto Grounds in 1970, and took the side of students protesting the Vietnam War, sending a letter to then-President Richard Nixon condemning his invasion of Cambodia.

UVa’s Board of Visitors discussed none of this at its meeting on Thursday.

John L. Nau III, who serves as chairman of the Buildings and Grounds Committee, said "there is still work to address and complete on this issue" and promised the board would "definitely" discuss the matter at its meeting in March.

That matter was not discussed further on Thursday.


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