Helen Dragas and the UVA Board of Visitors: A Lesson In Hubris?


A reinvigorated and strengthened community of faculty, students and alumni has rallied around President Teresa Sullivan in an unprecedented way. Its demands for her reinstatement challenge the actions of Rector Helen Dragas and the Board of Visitors, who acted against the institution through irresponsible decision making and secret back-room processes.

What’s so powerful about the UVA community’s defense of Sullivan is that it has also become a collective reaffirmation of founder Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of higher education as a force to improve society, one which is central to the American dream. It is nothing short of a defense of American public higher education.

Students’ use of social media has made it harder to keep the machinations of Dragas, Kington, their billionaire friends, and their PR company under wraps. They have galvanized support for Sullivan’s reinstatement and organized and funneled the tremendous response of the community. A group led by student Suzie McCarthy organized a “Rally for Honor” Sunday on the campus lawn which called for a vigil outside Tuesday’s Board of Visitors’ meeting. Almost 15,000 people have joined the group’s Facebook page, and an emotional Youtube video posted last week featuring alumni statements has received 7,000 views to date.

However, Dragas appears to be tone deaf. In her reply to Gov. McDonnell’s demand that the university board end the uncertainty about Sullivan’s position, she discounted the uproar she has unleashed by reiterating the formal authority of the board over the campus: “… we alone are appointed to make these decisions on behalf of the University, free of influence from outside political, personal or media pressure.”

In rebuttal, UVA professor of politics James W. Ceaser emphasized Jefferson’s belief that governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed. The Board of Visitors, he writes, ignored the spirit of this principle in the way they dismissed Sullivan: “Real authority, the kind that matters most, is measured in peoples’ willingness to accept the legitimacy of those in power. If the alumni stop giving moral and financial support to the university, if the faculty continues to resist, if students do not fall in line, then formal authority is almost helpless.”

In her statement last Thursday, Dragas says: “It is the Board’s responsibility… to ask how well any particular curriculum or program actually prepares UVA graduates for the increasingly complex, international world in which they will live and compete.” But Dragas’ hard-line assertion of authority implies that the only kind of acceptable answers are those framed in the language of the businesspeople who make up the board – indeed the model she discussed for UVA with her erstwhile ex-vice rector Mark Kington followed the organization of Darden business school.

The fact is that in a fast-changing world, confining education to specific high-growth fields – like business studies or science – is the worst kind of preparation for students. A growth field today may be a dead end tomorrow, and in order to adjust to a complex world graduates need a more generalized education. The more specific the skill set taught, the harder it is to orient to change. What is at a premium is learning to use judgment and to think for oneself, qualities learned in the very liberal arts curricula that Dragas dismisses.

An article in the Washington Post on how the struggle had focused attention on the purpose of public higher education attracted many comments, among which was one by ‘Laughternforgetting’: “When I went to UVa as an undergraduate, the people of Virginia and the other states thought having a well educated population was an essential part of being a free nation with a democracy and provided the support necessary for me and others to attend without becoming indentured servants upon taking our degrees. Today, people seem to think that being well educated benefits only the individual … and to the businesses where those future workers will work. It is time to return to the same tax structure of the 60s and early 70s that made this a great nation with a strong working infrastructure including outstanding universities.”

The WaPo article notes: “At the center of the conflict are governing board members, many of them successful business people, appointed by Republicans and Democrats alike, who want schools to behave more like corporations — measuring student outcomes, boosting faculty productivity and trimming programs that don’t add to the bottom line. ‘They’ve got to run more efficiently,’ said Virginia House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox … ‘We do want more return for the money — distance learning, using facilities year-round, putting more resources into science, math and technology because that’s where the jobs are’.”

But ‘Rick441’ retorts: “Business school grads like to talk accountability more than they talk about how their zeal for accountability can produce perverse results because of an incomplete understanding of what they are measuring.”

Certainly Dragas is one of those perverse results. But whether she persists in her hubris—and yes, you need to have read Aristotle to fully know what that means—remains to be seen. What is certain is that Americans are waking up to the fact that a comprehensive public higher education that includes the humanities as much as the sciences and business is vital to the republic. The humanities are about more than sweetness and light: they are about freedom.

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Filed under financiers, Hedge Fund managers, Neoliberalism, political analysis, University of Virginia

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