Is the University of Virginia Really Out of the Woods?

12:42 pm in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

Helen Dragas

Dr.Teresa Sullivan

Last summer a scandal at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville jolted U. S. academia, as well as a good chunk of the general populace in the State and in neighboring Washington, DC. The governor-appointed Rector of the school’s “Board of Visitors,” the Tidewater-area businesswoman Helen Dragas, worked behind the back of the school’s President, Teresa Sullivan, to secure the support of a majority of the board for the latter’s ouster. According to interviews with key people conducted by Washington Post reporters at the time, the board “felt Sullivan lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.”

But what Dragas and the board had not understood was that, first, Sullivan was popular on the campus, and, second, that this was the University founded by Thomas Jefferson, whose support of the humanities is easy to cite. Students and faculty wrote letters and held rallies, an internet petition drive was organized through to let outsiders (like yours truly) participate, and eventually the powers that be managed to persuade the board to reinstate Sullivan. (UVA, a hotbed of radicalism — who knew?)

There was even a fair amount of sentiment to dump Dragas, whose term was expiring. However, she had backers in high places according to the campus paper The Cavalier Daily, including the state’s Governor and both U. S. Senators, thanks to the largesse her construction company has bestowed on political campaigns. Thus in January of this year the Governor reappointed her and the state legislature concurred.

There has been a certain amount of rhetoric to the effect that Dragas and Sullivan have worked well together following the latter’s reinstatement, with no bad blood between them, but now there is a new flareup. A WaPo reporter has again inserted herself, this time the education correspondent Jenna Johnson, to uncover the following. (The print edition this morning is expanded beyond what that link gives. If the online version gets updated I will add that. 3/3/13: the link is now updated.)

It seems that Dragas was biding her time until her reappointment was secured, but then within a mere few days she demanded that Sullivan toe the line. She namely sent the President a list of 65 “goals” to be met this school year (apparently not noticing that it is already more than half over). This did not set well with Sullivan:

“The sheer number of goals is close to impossible to achieve, especially with only five months left in the academic year,” Sullivan wrote in a Feb. 6 email obtained by The Washington Post. “I am not averse to stretch goals, but I also do not care to be set up to fail.”

Also this: “Missing from the list, Sullivan wrote, was her own ‘most urgent goal’ to raise employee compensation.” Rather, most of the additions to the list that Sullivan herself had submitted for approval were concerned with the medical center “and the university’s finances” (shades of those “obscure” humanities disciplines that “can’t sustain themselves financially”?).

This story broke on a Saturday, and it remains to be seen what students and faculty will make of it when they hear it. Stay tuned.

Update 3/2/13 7:30 PM Eastern (and in Eastern time this diary was posted at 2:42, not 12:42 as claimed above) It seems they are already hearing it. A Facebook page has been set up entitled “Operation Support Sullivan! March 2nd-8th.” It states, “it seems clear that having been unable to surreptitiously oust [Sullivan] the BOV and particularly Rector Dragas are attempting to put together grounds to dismiss her based on incompetence,” and goes on to ask “the UVA community to stand together once more behind our beleaguered president,” and to call on people to take a number of concrete actions.

Go, UVA community!