All signs surrounding the leadership coup at the prestigious University of Virginia point to a behind-the-scenes conspiracy between a billionaire Wall Street banker and the rector and vice-rector of the university’s Board of Visitors. The questionable termination of president Teresa Sullivan is the latest chapter in the neoliberal attempt to dismantle higher education as a public, common good and remake it in the market’s own plutocratic, privatized image.
Sullivan’s forced resignation has prompted no-confidence votes in the university’s board from faculty, administrators, alumni, and students. At a packed emergency faculty meeting on Sunday night, professors said they no longer wanted to teach at the institution because of the way Sullivan was removed after two years in office. Provost John Simon questioned whether “honor, integrity and trust are truly the foundational pillars of life at the University of Virginia.” Faculty leaders are due to meet with the governing body Monday morning.
According to the Washington Post, Sullivan was ousted because of “her unwillingness to consider dramatic program cuts in the face of dwindling resources, and for her perceived reluctance to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate chief executive.” The Post reported that the rector of the Board of Visitors, Helen Dragas, a real estate developer from Virginia Beach, “laid the groundwork for Sullivan’s removal over several months, working in secret with a small team of collaborators. They included vice rector Mark Kington, a venture capitalist from Alexandria and former business partner to Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), and Peter Kiernan, a New York investor who led the foundation of the university’s business school.”
The group shared the opinion that Sullivan was moving too slowly to restructure the university and in particular “lacked the mettle to shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.” The classics department at the university is in fact one of the largest and most distinguished in America.
“In a cordial Q-and-A posted to a U-Va. news site in March, Sullivan was asked whether there was ‘room to reduce spending’. Her reply: ‘[I]n terms of big areas where there are obvious cost savings, I don’t think we have those.’ The university was already ‘pretty lean,’ she said; ‘I worry about getting very much leaner’.’’
In a press statement, Dragas cited market pressures as responsible for the move: “We see no bright lights on the financial horizon as we face limits on tuition increases, an environment of declining federal support, state support that will be flat at best, and pressures on health care payors. This means that as an institution, we have to be able to prioritize and reallocate the resources we do have …”
But her accomplice, Peter Kiernan, revealed a different reason in an email which he inadvertently sent to the entire board of the UVA’s Darden business school: “Several weeks ago I was contacted by two important Virginia alums about working with Helen Dragas on this project, particularly from the standpoint of the search process and the strategic dynamism effort.” Kiernan decided to resign from the Darden board after mistakenly hitting “reply to all” on his email.
Who are these important alumni? And what is strategic dynamism? According to the Charlottesville Hook, “Knowledgeable sources say that one man, already well known for pledging $35 million to build a UVA basketball arena in his father’s name, had a key role in removing the president. That man, 1976 UVA grad Paul Tudor Jones, is a Greenwich-based hedge fund manager who began building his estimated $3 billion-plus fortune in the 1980s, and who sits, alongside fellow Greenwich resident Kiernan, on the boards of several corporations and nonprofits.”
UVA’s capital campaign has fallen short by $400 million and is hoping to elicit a $100 million donation from multi-billionaire Jones. The Hook reports that the politically-connected Jones may have made Sullivan’s ouster a condition for his contribution. “Sources indicate that Jones and Kiernan joined Dragas in asserting that Sullivan simply did not possess the will for ‘strategic dynamism,’ an ability to take rapid action. While Kiernan’s email thus far remains the key public manifestation of his thinking, sources indicate that Jones had prior knowledge of Sullivan’s ouster.”
UVA’s Darden business school has been self-sufficient for almost a decade, but still pays about 10% of its revenue back to the central university, a practice common at many business schools, but regarded as a despised “tax” by some school benefactors who urge real privatization. “Such benefactors appear to have found a voice in the form of Rector Dragas, whose only post-college role at UVA prior to her governing board appointment was the two years she spent getting her MBA,” says The Hook.
Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell has taken an ostensibly hands-off approach to the situation, telling reporters “he had no intention of ‘meddling’ in the business of a governing board made up of what he termed ‘competent, professional people who love U-Va’,” and expressed confidence in the Board of Visitors’ judgment, asking that the University move swiftly to name an interim president. The Hook points out that a major donor to McDonnell’s 2009 election campaign was none other than Paul Tudor Jones, who contributed $100,000.