Helen Dragas Is Making UVA an Offer It Can’t Refuse: Move Over, Corleone


Today, Tuesday June 26, the University of Virginia Board of Visitors meets to decide whether or not to reinstate President Teresa Sullivan.

Despite the virtual unanimity of the campus community that the board should reverse its acceptance of her forced resignation, Sullivan’s principal opponent, rector Helen Dragas, has remained unmoved.

In all likelihood, Dragas will restate her position: that the board is responsible for projecting a sustainable income stream for the future and that because tuition fees are becoming unaffordable, and states will not reinstate funding, UVA will fail. She may accuse them with bending to popular opinion, as though the responses of faculty, alumni and students were simply an obstacle to be overcome in the execution of a business strategy.

What is sustaining Dragas’ intransigence? Her first reaction to the unprecedented outcry over Sullivan’s ouster was to hire expensive PR company Hill & Knowlton, and although it is known she has had regular discussions with hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, this would seem inadequate to explain her stubbornness.

A comment in the student newspaper The Cavalier Daily may point to a deeper reason: ideological support from the Koch brothers, fresh from their triumphant manipulation of the recall election in Wisconsin. ‘Jeffersonian1’ noticed this intriguing fact: “The language in Dragas’ first Hill & Knowlton missive and P. T. Jones most unusual op-ed closely resembles and in some instances mimics the documents of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (goacta.org), a group funded by Charles Koch.”

Anne Neal, the president of ACTA, has been one of the few people to publicly support Dragas in print. Beating the drum of accountability as a Trojan horse for her agenda, Neal argues in a press statement: “Of course, change is never easy. And faculty and administrators are up in arms.  But it bears noting that these are the same folks who have, for decades, resisted cutting costs and providing accountability to the public they serve. …  if the trustees stay the course, the university will be better off for their efforts. Let us hope that the UVA trustees have started a trend – a trend of engaged and courageous trustees who understand that today’s economic reality demands a new paradigm of effective and innovative leadership.”

The phrase “today’s economic reality” should give us all pause. To which reality is Neal referring? To the reality that Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has chronicled in his exposé of the organized crime culture of today’s Wall Street, which commits fraud with an impunity that rivals the criminality of Mexico’s drug cartels? To the reality the Supreme Court, that venerable body, which has reaffirmed  U.S. elections can be sold to the highest bidder? That Neal, Dragas, and company have the galling nerve to claim to be acting in the public interest puts them beneath contempt if they did not represent the very real threat to the last public institution that stands for something entirely alien to the plutocrat mentality: the common good of America.

Just like ALEC, its sister organization for state legislators, ACTA offers conferences and political support for governors who advocate educational “reform.” It provides model charters for commissions to implement drastic eviscerations of public institutions through “the expanded use of online delivery, full-year academic schedules, academic consortia and partnerships.”

The organization’s literature emphasizes the active role of trustees as opposed to faculty and administrators. A report on the state of Virginia’s education system states: “The disturbing trends highlighted by this report can only be reversed when trustees, visitors, and council members stay active in controlling costs and keeping higher education affordable, and when they critically evaluate the quality of their institutions’ general education programs.”

A brochure aimed at state governors enthusiastically quotes John Engler, the former governor of Michigan, and president of the reactionary Business Roundtable: “The old philosophy is that [university] boards should be relatively passive. The new philosophy is that boards should be active and responsible representatives of the public interest.” And union-busting Indiana governor Mitch Daniels is quoted: “… if we are going to make the kinds of improvements we need … [trustees] are going to have to press for it, and measure it, and demand results.”

The council particularly stresses the need to ignore political resistance in its “Guide to What Boards Can Do”: “Governing boards may initiate change in some instances, but in all instances they will be required to act with the finality that only their authority permits.”

Is this what Dragas echoes when she says: “… we alone are appointed to make these decisions on behalf of the University, free of influence from outside political, personal or media pressure?”

The board will have to decide whether or not to give in to Dragas and her backers. Alternatively, they can fail to come to a decision and be dissolved, putting the onus on the governor and creating a bigger political crisis. If Bob McDonnell is for sale—and after Citizens United, is there a politician who isn’t?— he could create a board that reinstates Sullivan with conditions designed to undermine her leadership and carry out the plutocratic dream of online education for all, and profit for a very, very few, effectively killing the Jeffersonian ideal of the university as a beacon of a democratic society.

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

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