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Texts show Youngkin appointee disparaged University of Virginia staff

People walk on brick path in a grassy area. Large brick buildings with columns stand in the background.
Crixell Matthews
VPM News (File)
People stroll through the University of Virginia's lawn on a sunny day.

Bert Ellis vowed to fight a “battle royale for the soul of the school” in a series of newly revealed text messages.

A businessman appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin to University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors called UVA administrators “schmucks” last year and vowed to fight a “battle royale for the soul of the school” in a series of newly revealed text messages.

In other messages, Bert Ellis — an Atlanta-based investor and UVA alumnus — expressed frustration over the placement of student signs mourning a mass shooting that left three students dead.

Prior to his appointment, Ellis wrote in 2021 that Youngkin’s ability to shape UVA’s board would be “our only opportunity to change/reverse the path to Wokeness that has overtaken our entire University.”

The text messages were uncovered by transparency advocate Jeff Thomas, who took the school to court to force their release under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. They were first reported by the Washington Post. Thomas also provided VPM News a second batch of text messages he received that have not been previously published, which he received through a separate public records request.

In a July 22, 2022, exchange with two other board members appointed by Youngkin, Stephen P. Long and Amanda Pillion, Ellis criticized Vice Provost Louis P. Nelson. Ellis called Nelson a “numnut” and claimed he “has nothing to do but highlight slavery at UVA.”

“This bloated bureaucracy has got to be slashed,” Ellis wrote.

In another Jan. 20, 2023, text to UVA Vice Rector Robert Hardie, Ellis sent what appears to be photos, later redacted, and a message about signs put up by students mourning a mass shooting the year before.

“Examples of the mess on the Lawn doors,” Ellis wrote. “The UVA Strong signs should be made to fit the message boards.”

Hardie responded that staff are working to rectify “the door situation,” prompting Ellis to send back the “official lawn regulations as of now.”

Ellis previously sparked controversy over a 2020 incident where he sought to alter a sign on UVA’s Lawn saying, “F— UVA.” Ellis said he carried “a small razor blade” to do that job but was stopped by UVA representatives, who said the student had a First Amendment right to post the message on their door.

Youngkin’s decision to appoint Ellis to the board last year sparked an immediate backlash. The school’s faculty senate, student council and campus newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, all called for lawmakers to reject Ellis’ appointment.

The texts show Ellis seeking guidance from another board member, Jim Murray, as the faculty moved ahead with censure. Murray wrote he’d spoken to “R. Cullen,” — a reference, he confirmed via email, to Youngkin’s chief counsel, Richard Cullen.

“My advice: ignore them,” Murray wrote in an Oct. 22, 2022, text. “They want attention. Any response simply fans the flames and the story will then draw more notoriety.”

Murray declined to comment on the message beyond confirming he’d spoken to Cullen.

Earlier this month, the General Assembly voted to confirm Ellis’ seat on the board along with other administrative appointments. State Sen. Scott Surovell (D–Fairfax), vice chairperson of the chamber’s Democratic caucus, said in a text message to VPM News that the public records came too late to alter the outcome of that confirmation.

UVA spokesperson Brian Coy wrote in an email that the messages “demonstrate a disappointing disregard for the hard work of UVA faculty and staff, as well as the University’s core values of civil discourse and honor.”

“It is important to note that the messages were sent before these members attended their first Board meeting, and that they have since had many opportunities to witness firsthand the many ways this institution, and its employees, contribute to the Commonwealth of Virginia, our nation, and our world,” Coy wrote.

Ellis and Cullen did not respond to requests for comment by publication, and a spokesperson for Youngkin declined to comment.

Thomas, who authored The Virginia Way: Democracy and Power after 2016, said UVA’s decision to fight the release of the documents was strategic.

“I think their strategy was to delay release and these horrible messages until Mr. Ellis, the board member, was appointed formally to a four-year term,” Thomas said in an interview, noting that the university appears to have succeeded.

“So, it was a mixed bag, but now the public can see exactly what these people are up to when they purport to represent the public interest and are instead lashing out with these venomous personal attacks at innocent people.”

Ellis is president of the Jefferson Council, a conservative-leaning group whose goals include preserving “the legacy of [Thomas] Jefferson” and promoting “open dialogue” at the university.

In one previously unreported exchange, several members of TJC appear to discuss an idea of recording a phone call with someone identified as “Gard,” — a reference to Richard Gard, the editor of UVA’s alumni magazine.

A July 1, 2022, text from a redacted phone number to several members of TJC, including James Bacon, Ann McLean, Walter Smith and Tom Neale, suggests Ellis record a phone call with Gard, which is legal under state law, and potentially release the recording to the media. The messages make it clear the person is upset at Gard, but it’s not clear from the messages what sparked their frustration.

“Every word Burt says should be spoken with the knowledge that he is preparing a record to persuade liberals and others who don’t like us but realize we are totally right on the merits,” the unidentified person wrote. “And if Burt loses his temper, raises his voice, or does anything unpleasant they might use this as an excuse to blame it on Bert, we could lose the war.”

The unidentified number says McLean should talk to the press because “She is great with the media, she is not an old white male, and she has a UVA PhD.”

“Agree with this,” McLean said in response. “I will do whatever TJC would like me to do.”

In an email, Bacon said the suggestion came from someone outside TJC.

“I can say categorically that the suggestion made by a third party to record Richard Gard’s phone call was never entertained by The Jefferson Council, that Bert Ellis never made such a call, and no such recording was ever made,” Bacon said.

Gard declined to comment.

Del. Sally Hudson (D–Charlottesville), who is also a UVA economics professor, said the Ellis text messages showed the need to “de-politize” appointments to college and university boards given what she said was their strong influence in the community and state.

“This specific chapter shows that Mr. Ellis wants to roll back what has been indispensable work for the University of Virginia,” Hudson said in an interview. “UVA is just beginning to reckon with our whole history and surface stories that we should’ve been telling for years.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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