Most college students could not tell you the roles and responsibilities of their Board of Visitors, let alone the names of individual appointed members.
That’s not the case for some University of Virginia students who are campaigning for the removal of one member with a controversial past.
The Cavalier Daily, Student Council and University Democrats at UVa have all publicly condemned Gov. Youngkin’s appointment of Bert Ellis, the 1975 university alumnus who brought a razor blade to a student’s room to cut a sign off their Lawn room door two years ago.
“People deserve to know the truth. They deserve to know who’s sitting on their Board of Visitors and running this university,” said Eva Surovell, editor-in-chief of The Cavalier Daily, the student-operated newspaper at UVa. “We know that Ellis has demonstrated a lack of judgment.”
On Aug. 29, the University Democrats issued a statement calling for Ellis to resign based on “regressive and dangerous positions” that Ellis has held during his time as a student and tri-chairman of the University Union at UVa.
Archives from The Cavalier Daily revealed a pattern of Ellis acting on his controversial views from positions of power, specifically within the UVa community. More than 40 years later and during a time when UVa is focusing many of its resources on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, students say Ellis’ views challenge the university’s equitable evolution.
Before graduating from UVa as an undergraduate in 1975, Ellis served as tri-chairman and spokesman of the University Union. The union has since been renamed the University Programs Council, which coordinates concerts, speakers and debate-style events funded by student activity fees and ticket sales.
Stories written by Cavalier Daily staff last month and based on research into the paper’s own archives from Ellis’ time as an undergraduate, show Ellis supported the University Union’s 1974 speaking invitation to William Shockley, a 1956 Nobel Prize winner in physics and avowed white nationalist who believed Black people were genetically inferior to white people.
The union invited Shockley specifically to represent the eugenicist argument in a debate titled “The Correlation Between Race and Intelligence” for $1,000 compensation.
The debate was scheduled during Black Culture Week, which the University Union’s Minority Culture Committee hosted. That came despite pushback from UVa’s Black Student Alliance and Student Council at the time.
The university began admitting Black students in the late 1960s. Women were admitted in 1970. UVa denounced its role in supporting eugenics research in 2020.
According the paper’s archives, Ellis told The Cavalier Daily at the time that the co-chair of the Minority Culture Committee, who shared “the Black opinion” with the Union, approved of the event. But in the same article, co-chair Sheila Crider countered that she never signed off on the debate, referring to Shockley as “an insult to our intelligence.”
When Crider told The Cavalier Daily at the time that she never approved of the eugenics debate, Ellis and the Union tri-chairmen placed Crider on probation from the Union after she refused to resign.
In a statement to the student newspaper at the time, Ellis said the decision stemmed from “a general history of a hostile attitude to the tri-chairmen and Union committee co-chairmen.”
Despite months of opposition from several communities within the student body, Ellis and the University Union decided to host the debate during the first week of Black History Month in 1975.
Ellis declined a request for comment on the stories or the demands.
A Proud Hoo
Today Ellis is 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.
The Jefferson Council is a founding group in the Alumni Free Speech Alliance, a national organization of alumni groups formed “to support free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity at their institutions.”
Ellis refers to himself as a “serial entrepreneur,” is the chairman and CEO of Ellis Capital, a consulting and investment firm with fintech, healthcare, media and technology clients. He also owns KDOC-TV in Los Angeles, a broadcast television station. He is also a founding investor and board member of the WebMD platform.
With a prominent media background, Ellis formerly founded and served as the chairman and CEO of Ellis Communications, Act III Broadcasting, and iXL. Ellis currently is one of the owners of The White Spot restaurant on the Corner.
Ellis earned his MBA from the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at UVA and a BA in Economics from the University of Virginia.
In December 2021, Ellis created a blog post on the Jefferson Council website urging Youngkin to replace four board members whose terms ended earlier this year. In the post, Ellis claimed that the new governor, lieutenant governor and the attorney general were focused on “educating students and not brainwashing them with the woke/[critical race theory]/[diversity, equity, inclusion] mantras that have overtaken UVa.”
Now, Ellis is one of 17 decision-makers who oversee the policies, budget, health systems and operations while making long-term plans for UVa, which employs nearly 30,000 people. He sits on the boards’ academic and student life, advancement and buildings and grounds committees.
Students reject Ellis
On July 26, the UVa Student Council Executive Board released a statement condemning the appointment of Ellis. The Executive Board called Youngkin’s appointment “reckless, ill-intentioned and threatening to the safety of marginalized students.”
“I think that Bert is not an incredibly unique individual, but has been very unwilling to even address, let alone condemn, the things that happened in the ‘70s or history at UVa,” said Cecilia Cain, UVa Student Council President. “I think he represents the worst of UVa, and the worst of UVa history.”
The statement cited a 2020 incident when Ellis brought a razor blade to a UVa student’s room on the Lawn to cut down a sign of which he disapproved because of language. The sign read “F—k UVA” and listed “KKKcops, genocide, slavery, disability and Black and brown life” as operating costs of the university.
According to Ellis’ account of the event, published on the conservative political blog Bacon’s Rebellion, he planned to use the razor blade to remove the profanity from the student’s sign.
Instead, he knocked on the student’s door and asked her to defend her position. He admits that he continued speaking to the door once the student closed it in front of him.
Students say Ellis’ appointment shows little progress at UVa in terms of equity and inclusion in the past decades.
“The one thing that came out of that incredible time of organizing that I personally learned so much from in the ‘70s, was [the Black Student Alliance’s] list of demands,” said Cain. “Not a single demand has been met to this day, 50 years later, and Bert Ellis is still being put in positions of power and decision-making at the university. I think it speaks to how much deeper, at a material level, UVa has not changed.”
The Cavalier Daily’s published another story about Ellis from its archives just 10 days after the Shockley debate story. According to the archives, Ellis denied a request from the UVa Gay Straight Union to co-sponsor an event headlined by gay rights activist Frank Kameny in 1975.
The article includes insight from that union’s president at that time who said the group was not looking for money from the University Union but for a platform to gain access to more publicity and increased advertising.
In a March 1975 article in The Cavalier Daily, one of the tri-chairmen agreed that the union would sponsor the event, but Ellis cut the cord on the partnership two days later.
“In view of the student population here, it is not the type of activity the University Union should sponsor,” Ellis continued in that article. “[Homosexuality] is not an issue viewed highly in the university. It would not help the University Union’s position and prestige.”
Ellis rescinded the co-sponsorship agreement without consulting the other tri-chairmen.
“When thinking about UVa politics and the structure of administration, students don’t see how it impacts their day-to-day lives,” said Tichara Robertson, chief of support and access services of UVa Student Council. “But because this person has been put on the board, he is almost a more physical and in-your-face representation of the harsh histories and legacies of UVa. It’s more frightening for students.”
In addition to the archive investigation from The Cavalier Daily, other organizations are speaking up to object to Youngkin’s decision to appoint Ellis. Since the student newspaper began publishing the archive stories, the Democratic Party of Virginia and the University Democrats at UVa released a joint statement calling for Ellis to resign.
“Students are entitled to their opinions,” Ellis wrote on the Jefferson Council website. “However, there are times when adult leaders must step up and offer rational, countervailing viewpoints.”