President Teresa Sullivan’s Reinstatement: A Stay of Execution for the Humanities at UVA and the Nation

The reinstatement of President Sullivan is a clear victory for the University of Virginia campus community. The Washington Post reported: “When the Board of Visitors announced its unanimous vote — with Rector Helen E. Dragas concurring — a cheer went up from the crowd gathered outside the iconic Rotunda designed by Thomas Jefferson. It was a telling moment that underscored just how badly the board had arrived at and handled the misguided decision to demand Ms. Sullivan’s resignation on June 10.”

But make no mistake: the political pressures on UVA will continue, a fact  highlighted by a New York Times op-ed which blames universities’ expansion of higher education in the 2000s for their current fiscal problems as a rationale for promoting online education. However, not once does the author, Jeff Selingo, Editorial Director at the Chronicle of Higher Education, mention the way the bank-induced recession caused a drastic drop in state revenues, leading to major cuts in funding for higher education, nor the indebtedness of states and municipalities to banks which dishonestly sold swap deals to communities in order to milk Americans of the last drops of their wealth. The idea of asking states to invest in public higher education is not even on the table.

Only time will tell whether Sullivan will become the point person to carry out the changes that Dragas tried to hammer through and Selingo takes up in the Op-ed. (His timing in publishing the piece the day before the Board of Visitors met is an extraordinary coincidence that cannot go unremarked). The lack of transparency, however, in Sullivan’s reinstatement indicates that whatever compromise was reached, Dragas has not moved from the position that led her to the reckless decisions of the past month. It’s only a matter of time before we see Classics and German at UVA being wheeled out to the guillotine once more as Dragas or her replacement does her knitting.

The Cavalier Daily pointed out: “The process that led to Sullivan’s reinstatement, however, was just as shrouded in secrecy as the process that led to her resignation. The Board voted 12-1 to appoint an interim president on June 19, and all 12 of those members supported Sullivan today. Apart from the resignation of Vice Rector Mark Kington and the publication of emails between Dragas and Kington discussing changes in the field of higher education, the public has little insight into what forced the Board to rescind its earlier decision.”

In his preamble to the motion to reinstate Sullivan, former rector Heywood Fralin revealed: “It is clear that every member knew that the Rector and the Vice-Rector intended to meet with President Sullivan to ask for her resignation. I was not clever enough at the time to confer with other members to determine if three would be willing to call a special meeting of the Board of Visitors to discuss such action. I am confident there would have been three willing members and that if such a meeting had been called, a vigorous discussion would have ensued, and no one knows what the vote would have been.”

Dragas made no apology for the substance of her actions, only for “the way this was presented.” Speaking on the motion to reinstate Sullivan, she voiced agreement with Virginia governor McDonnell on “the importance of Board governance, and that the Board exists in large part to make difficult decisions for the good of the University. … the Board should all come together – to bring this University quickly toward a process of healing that respects the Board’s governance, while also committing to faster and more measurable progress against a number of real challenges we all face as an institution.”

Asserting respect for the board’s governance after the fiasco it created is a remarkable piece of chutzpah. By not leveraging her advantage and insisting on Dragas’ resignation, Sullivan allowed the board, made up entirely of political appointees from the business and financial world, to avoid taking a stand on Dragas’ unethical maneuverings or the profound philosophical differences over the kind of strategy the university should adopt. The vote served only to defuse the huge outcry against the board.

Gov. McDonnell is surely no innocent here, despite his Pontius Pilate act. The Koch-funded group ACTA specifically targets state governors in its propaganda which stresses an aggressive role for boards of trustees in imposing changes from above, and promotes them against faculty, administrators, and students. Dragas’ statements and actions appear to echo this viewpoint.

‘DrDemocracy’ commented on the same Post article cited above: “Bob McDonnell claimed to be uninvolved in all of this. But he most likely was, at least tangentially. As Chubb and Moe noted, McDonnell pushed very hard in the last legislative session for more charter schools and ‘virtual school opportunities.’ … Conservatives, especially Republicans (but also business-oriented ‘fiscal’ conservatives like Helen Dragas), view education simply as a commodity to be bought and sold, and not as a core civic responsibility of government in a democratic republic. In that sense, Dragas and her cronies undermined Jefferson’s belief in the importance of public education (and his vision for the University of Virginia).”


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

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