Back to The Virginia Way
The restoration of Teresa Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia is a remarkable victory for the owners of the university—you and me and all other Virginians—but at best marks the end of the beginning of what will amount to a culture war over the fate of the institution.
What was most threatened was not the person of the president. Nor was the danger from the “flaws” in the procedure of dismissal, sneaky and nasty though they were. What was menaced and traduced was the essential idea of the University, the ideals of liberal education for citizenship and the enlightened academic vision Jefferson realized in creating the University.
What emerged clearly from the firing was the agenda that drove it, and we confront starkly the question of whether the University will have a fundamentally corporate character—this view has been infiltrating higher education for 20 years now—or a traditionally scholastic one.
It was for this reason that political stripes did not appear among the enflamed believers in the mission of the University. The issue does not admit Democrat or Republican points of view on it; the idea of the University transcends partisanship. The University community and the general public rallied to Sullivan’s side because they believed that she had been fired for defending their idea of the University.
Some people have been trying to get universities (and to some degree local public schools) to wear a business suit for a long time, and they just won’t fit because corporations and universities are different creatures. The raw material of universities—students—cannot be commodified. Each is a subject, not an object. Therefore education institutions have their own logic that is not premised on conformity. The University is wasteful and blundering every day, but it is not made wrong.
Further, the University is not the property of the men and women who are given the privilege to serve as its trustees. Its “brand,” its reputation, is not theirs to barter away on faddish hype about digital tools or for teases of largess from corporate owners of online education platforms. Rich donors to the University, however besotted they may be with their personal sense of prerogative, do not acquire proprietary authority over U.Va. by making a gift to it. It belongs to us and we will pass it intact to our heirs.
The shabby conspiracy that attempted to remove Sullivan, after months of private intrigue among organizers on the Board of Visitors, and apparently involving influential, self-important alumni who later preferred to retreat into the shadows, had to confront its dishonorable character the moment it achieved it first tactical goal, coercing Sullivan’s resignation.
Once in the glare of public inspection, it showed off all the style of a corporate boardroom coup, plotted out by people who believe business school cant about “leadership” and “dynamism.” Never make the mistake of falling for your own jargon and opaque platitudes. “Dragas:” read one sign at an early rally on the Lawn, “You failed your Machiavelli final.”
Rector Helen Dragas—could she really have conceived this plan for herself?—should have resigned promptly once her role was exposed, as Vice-Rector Mark Kington did. When she clung to her office, oblivious of her shame—”We did the right thing the wrong way,” she said as an excuse—she should not have been reappointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell. By leaving her on the board—for what quid pro quo, one wonders—McDonnell ensures conflict, and possibly even more intrigue, in the administration of the University. For this, he is diminished in the eyes of not just loyal Wahoos but those of all wise and decent Virginians. The corporate conspirators are left standing and we must expect that their agenda is alive too.
There is nothing that says the governors must choose rich alumni to occupy the seats on the Board of Visitors. Traditionally governors do it to reward donors to their campaigns, people who will presumably be able to make gifts to the University as well. But for the most part corporate leaders are out of their element in governing a university. They tend to fall back on paradigms they are comfortable with when challenged by educational conundrums. Their response is, how can we treat this as a business problem?
When the editor was a boy there was still common reference to a virtue called “the Virginia Way.” It’s basically encapsulated in the University’s Honor System. The main point was to be truthful, decent, brave, polite, at all times and to all people, and never underhanded. It held out a sense of what it means to be noble. It was apparently a legacy of old Virginia aristocracy. It failed its own ideals in tolerating segregation and blanched in the face of Massive Resistance, and perhaps that is why it is not upheld as a standard of behavior today. But in the saga of Sullivan’s firing we see that its light has gone missing in the leadership of our cherished institution, as when the power, which we have taken for granted, fails and we are left looking at the dark. In Crozet we are reassured to see that native son Leonard Sandridge, whom we know was taught the Virginia Way, has been made an advisor to the Board.
We have survived the surprise attack. Now we must resolve to ensure the victory of the true idea of the University.