Oh, shame, shame, shame. The Governor’s reappointment of University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas and the General Assembly’s ratification of it shows that our most prominent public servants in fact consider themselves to be our political masters. But their performance in this sad spectacle betrays their real status as the flunkies and henchmen of the shadowy plutocrats who, because they finance political campaigns, often paying to both sides to ensure that they have backed the winner, presume to treat the University as their toy and insolently shove the disgraced Rector in our faces because they mean to prove that they can protect one of their own. And they have. So now we see the honor-challenged hearts of Virginia’s leaders. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and Gov. Bob McDonnell have all stood up in front of cameras, put on feeble smiles and made tut-tut-tut excuses for Dragas that in no way justify or explain her actions. They are mere finger puppets for their rich financiers.
Life in politics brings with it powerful temptations and opportunities to do wrong, even evil, to the innocent and trusting citizens for whose sake leaders govern. When the University institued its Honor System in 1842, its leaders knew that attending the University is be a privilege available to the select elite who show the ability to best employ the education that U.Va. provides. They are people likely to rise in their professions, or in government, to supreme positions where their decisions affect society as a whole. Ethics was subject in Jefferson’s design of the curriculum and the Honor System is the institutionalization of that value. Once you have given mighty authority to a person, it is too late to wonder if he or she has the wisdom and virtue to wield it. Character must be established first.
We may not be able to prove that Dragas has violated the letter of the Honor System’s standard of no lying, no cheating and no stealing, three concise no-nos that are a handy rule of thumb for moral living. But she has thoroughly betrayed the spirit of the Honor System, and in seeking to keep her post, she scorns it and wipes her feet on it. Why should a student at U.Va. bother to respect the Honor System after Dragas is reappointed as its figurehead? It makes a sham of the nearly 200 years during which Virginians have worked to instill, in practical ways, our ideals as a people and the criterion under which we demand to be governed.
We thought we had a problem with the Board of Visitors when President Teresa Sullivan was booted in an announcement on a lazy Sunday morning in June, no doubt an hour advised to the conspirators by their PR consultants. It was shocking enough to discover the brazen coup attempt by a coterie of the board who worked around the procedures designed to ensure board transparency, with Dragas walking the point, and who betrayed the duties that they solemnly assumed by accepting their appointment. It amounted to subversion of the “academical village.”
We say again to them emphatically: the University is not the property of the rich people who sit on its board or those who dole out from their fortunes to it. It is the property of the people of Virginia. It is they who have carried it to greatness over the years, generally for no reward for themselves. It exists for our children and posterity. It exists to achieve the goal Jefferson set out for it: to be “the bulwark of the human mind in this hemisphere.” What do they think “commonwealth” means?
The visitors serve as a privilege. Live by the duties of that privilege or get out.
But clearly the mess does not stop at the Board of Visitors. Elected officials serve as a privilege too. Our political bosses apparently think the Dragas episode is a minor dust-up over a routine appointment. No. No. No. It is profoundly serious and potentially devastating. It tunnels under our footings.
But it has shown us plainly what cynicism lurks behind the facade of our political culture. We have had glimpses of this problem recently in the purchase of Biscuit Run park, in which case a law was actually passed in advance of the sale that prevents the public from learning exactly what its terms are and satisfying themselves about why we taxpayers paid so much for it than it is worth.
Or take the case of the Rt. 29 western bypass, which has miraculously stood up out of its grave like a horror film monster, thanks to some still-secret deals that benefit someone—whom?—in defiance of the settled will of the people.
Both of these actions are in-your-face slaps at us as well.
Virginians, we have a mess to clean up. We have had to deal with self-appointed aristocrat bosses before. To this hour, Dragas’s only honorable course is resignation.
Obviously, the selection of visitors should no longer be patronage appointments of the governor. We need people who actually value what is entrusted to them.
How to handle this is not clear, because our present oversight system has failed at every level. But we must establish firmer criteria that make the state university boards better than homogeneous clubs of millionaires.