June 19, 2012
In a stunning announcement last week, the president of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, submitted her resignation, effective mid-August, just before the fall semester begins. This was quite a shock because she has only held that position for two years, and there were no previous indications of any problems that might lead to such a precipitous action. Over the weekend, we learned that this was the culmination of a fierce, behind-the-scenes clash of wills over how the university should adjust to the harsh budget realities of today. More specifically, Rector Helen Dragas, who leads the U.Va. Board of Visitors, has been quietly recruiting support among other board members to have Sullivan removed.
This news of what appears to be a conspiracy turned the simmering anger into fierce outrage aimed primarily at Dragas, a developer from the Tidewater area. (See below.) As the Board of Visitors prepared to gather for a formal meeting to confirm openly what had already been decided privately, the U.Va. faculty Senate convened on Sunday, and yesterday (Monday) a protest rally was held in support of Teresa Sullivan, with about 2,000 people present, including me. See the Washington Post.
Faculty Senate chairman George Cohen spoke to the crowd about after Sullivan left, and reported on what was discussed with the BOV. He listed four requests that were submitted to the BOV:
(For a full statement, see the U.Va. Faculty Senate's Web page.) Cohen acknowledged the unlikelihood of getting approval for those proposals, but he hoped they would have some effect. In fact, vice rector Mark Kington did resign his position on the U.Va. board of visitors on Tuesday; see timesdispatch.com. Maybe Dragas herself will leave soon. Her expressions of "regret" were totally inadequate, given the extent of damage that has been done to the university's prestige.
It is worth mentioning the political background to these dirty dealings. As the Washington Post reported last Wednesday (June 12):
[Gov. Tim] Kaine appointed Dragas to the board in 2008. A Virginia Beach developer who received two degrees from U-Va., Dragas has contributed nearly $20,000 to candidates since 2002, including $6,000 to Kaine, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in politics.
Well, that's probably par for the course, the way things work in the real world of money-grubbing politics. Kaine declined to comment, obviously not wanting this scandal to undermine his campaign for the U.S. Senate.
I was hoping the weather would be nicer, for the sake of photographs, but it really didn't matter that the skies were overcast, because the Rotunda was enclosed by scaffolding as workers repair the domed roof and adjoining structural members. One nice side benefit of going to that rally was seeing some familiar faces from U.Va. and the Charlottesville communtiy, including a couple Facebook friends! I even exchanged warm greetings with Rev. Paula Kettlewell, former vice-rector of St. Paul's Memorial Church (Episcopal), which Jacqueline and I used to attend, just across the street from the U.Va. grounds, up the hill from The Corner.
After spending an hour or two at the rally, I headed over to Alderman Library to take a nostalgic look around the stacks and look at some books -- including my own dissertation! Believe it or not, it was the first time I have actually seen it printed and bound. Way above average in terms of pages, and chock full of detailed leadership chronologies, dazzling graphs, and color maps done by the author himself. Pretty d****d impressive, if I do say so myself! When I went there to look for it a couple years ago, somebody had checked it out.
Later in the afternoon, President Sullivan issued a statement to NBC29.com. She recounted her accomplishments over the past two years, and acknowledged the need to adapt to changing times, but insisting that changes should not be disruptive. She proudly referred to herself as an "incrementalist," relying on consensus and careful planning. In a direct rebuke to BOV Chair Dragas, she declared, "Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university."
Late last night, the BOV announced that the Dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, Carl Zeithaml, would serve as interim president until a permanent replacement could be named. (See augustafreepress.com.) What an awful job he has in front of him.
Before heading to Charlottesville yesterday, I got engaged in some spirited discussions about the U.Va. issue (and other matters) on Facebook. Here are some of my verbal gems, responding to Shaun Kenney's observation that George Allen froze college tuition when he was governor (TRUE, according to www.politifact.com):
Talking about "free markets" in the context of massively-subsidized public universities is not very helpful. But Waldo [Jaquith] does (implicitly) raise a very good point about the collateral effect of the tuition cap and tight state budgets: the ever-growing reliance by U.Va. on funding from all sorts of private corporations. In the long run, that is bound to create conflicts with the University's stated purpose.
To a large extent, U.Va. already IS private: It's a gold-plated luxury resort camp catering to privileged youths, sprinkled with a few ambitious plebians just for the sake of appearance. Waldo's point that it can't go fully private, as Chris [Green] suggested, is what makes it so convenient to maintain the Jeffersonian pretense while whoring for mega-donations.
Please pardon my bluntness. I hope it serves to highlight the underlying dilemma that faces public education across the country today: educators are caught in a vicious cycle of declining public respect for scholarly endeavors, which leads to reduced resources, reduced effort by students, and cynicism among teachers, which leads to even less respect, etc., etc. Politicians who seek to get elected by making campaign promises that conceal the above-stated ugly truth are themselves a key part of the problem. More on that later.