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Is the University of Virginia Really Out of the Woods? New Developments

8:21 am in Uncategorized by E. F. Beall

In a piece posted three days ago I treated a flare-up in the tension between the University of Virginia’s Governing Board and its President, Teresa Sullivan, that had supposedly been resolved with the reversal at the end of last summer of Sullivan’s forced resignation. According to Jenna Johnson’s March 2 Washington Post article the board’s rector, Helen Dragas lost no time after her own reappointment this January in demanding that Sullivan accomplish 65 “goals” by the end of the academic year, seven months from the date of the email in question, to which Sullivan took offense. The Johnson article triggered an immediate response, in particular revitalizing the campus group that had coordinated the protests last summer that led to Sullivan’s reinstatement, UVA United For Honor.

It now seems that President Sullivan herself is somewhat taken aback by the new public attention, according to yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education, at least in the public face she shows. Its reporter caught up with her on Sunday in Washington, DC, where she was attending the annual meeting of the American Council on Education, and elicited her comment that “overly much is being made” of her relationship with Dragas in the wake of the leaked email she sent to the latter, to trigger the WaPo story, particularly in the context that this national conference was taking place.

On the other hand, what else can one expect her to say about the flap in public? She does have to deal with the Board of Visitors. Meanwhile, the Chronicle’s reporter buttonholed some other university presidents and education leaders after a closed session at the ACE meeting, entitled “Moving Forward: Rebuilding Structures, Trust, and Reputation After a Campus Crisis.” One would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at that one, judging from the comments he was able to obtain or not.

For example, one president is quoted as saying, “if you have 65 priorities, you don’t have any priorities.” Another would only speak briefly in generalities, before he “ducked into an elevator.”

Moreover, the University’s Faculty Senate has now spoken. According to Johnson’s update on the situation, although its statement yesterday hedges a bit with boilerplate to the effect that her Saturday article might not give the full context, it says

Rector Dragas’s reported conduct does not embody the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation that we expected to follow the reinstatement of President Sullivan. Unfortunately, it raises the very concerns about minority control that led UVA’s accrediting agency to put us on warning last fall, and suggests that Rector Dragas has not yet learned the governance lessons from last summer’s crisis. This kind of behavior must end.

For its part, UVA United For Honor does not seem to be letting up, judging from today’s version of its Facebook page (cf. its action page). And it now tallies 68 supporting emails sent to Sullivan’s Chief of Staff, out of a goal of 250.

I can only say again, stay tuned.

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!