The 1895 Rotunda fire. Image courtesy the University of Virginia Library.
"This is the most egregious case I have ever seen of mismanagement by a governing board. It's secretive, it's misguided and based on the public statements, there's no clear rationale.” Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities
"We encourage all of us, even as we adjust and absorb this change, to focus constructively forward in preparing the institution for its next stage of leadership..." University of Virginia provost John Simon and COO Michael Strine
On day five of the UVA debacle, in which the university's renegade board acted unilaterally and secretly to oust President Teresa Sullivan after less than two years on the job, the gap between perceptions only grows. The university's board of visitors, on the one hand, remains insular and tight-lipped, its effort at damage control now engulfing Sullivan's two hand-picked executives, Simon and Strine. (Their message posted to the university's website has been likened to a "hostage" stunt, and rightfully so. Earlier this week, Simon, formerly of Duke, called Sullivan "one of the stars" of higher education and said they had "all kinds of projects in the works" to "advance" the university. He and Strine should do the right thing and resign, though both presumably are under consideration for the interim presidency. Ethical failures everywhere at the top of Mr. Jefferson's university!) On the other hand, more and more observers both inside and outside UVA, typified by Rawlings of the AAU, are seeing the board's coup for what it is: something rotten in the state of Virginia. UPDATE: This afternoon the executive council of UVA's faculty senate "unanimously declared"it had no confidence in Dragas, vice-rector Mark Kington, or the entire board of visitors.
Simon and Strine's encouragement (thanks!) to "focus constructively forward" is plainly disingenous: how can anyone in the university community think constructively when we don't have any facts? Constructive, collaborative engagement occurred during the process to select Sullivan as president, the result of a 19-member search committee that was half board members, half faculty (six of them), students, and alumni. Yet the decision to remove Sullivan apparently rested with one person, board rector Helen Dragas, a real-estate developer. Dragas may know about business, but she has no higher education credentials. What she does have are connections to UVA's Darden School of Business, being not only an alumna but also a confidant of the Darden foundation's chairman, Peter Kiernan. Update: Kiernan resigned this afternoon, thus further isolating Dragas. (See another UVA alumna's provocative discredited theory about the possible role of Goldman Sachs's for-profit online education sideline in Sullivan's ouster; Kiernan is a former GS partner.) What is it that Dragas, Kiernan, and others have to hide that they can't offer any specifics about Sullivan's ouster? All Dragas does is issue meaningless sleight-of-hand remarks that exemplify Stein's mystical description of her hometown of Oakland: "There is no there there."
I, too, am a UVA alum, and I remain involved in university affairs through my membership on the board of directors of the Serpentine Society, the LGBTQ alumni interest group, which I currently co-chair. I have a stake in the university's well-being as much as anyone. But I'm also dismayed by Sullivan-gate as an emerging academic—I've taught at Rutgers University and I'm beginning the PhD English program at the CUNY Graduate Center. I keenly feel an affinity with Virginia faculty who describe themselves, correctly, as the "stewards of [the] mission of higher education." I'm also a Rutgers grad—I earned my MFA there this May—so I'm a double product of public institutions. As New Jersey's flagship undergoes its own turmoil regarding the power of governing boards, UVA is a sad example of the damage a group of political appointees can do when unfettered by limits.
At UVA, people like to talk about two things: Jefferson's legacy, and the university's stature among peer institutions. The renegade board's abject ouster of Sullivan is a detriment to both, and will likely remain injurious for some time. In explaining Sullivan's removal, Kiernan of the Darden foundation referred three times to "strategic dynamism," an empty management euphemism for purposeless explosion. (Perhaps Kiernan had seen Prometheus, which repeatedly invokes the false notion of destruction for the sake of creation.) But as the university's own history reminds us, dynamite usually has unintended consequences, as manifest in this moment as in 1895, when the Rotunda—the centerpiece and symbol of UVA—was felled by fire. In order to save the now-landmarked structure, an engineering professor "tried dynamiting the bridge" between it and its annex. The result, however, was even more disastrous:
Unfortunately, this blew a hole in the Rotunda, and the fire spread more rapidly. Before it could be brought under control, the annex, dome and interior of the Rotunda had been destroyed. Only the Rotunda’s charred circular brick walls remained.
As the University of Virginia suffers from another dynamic calamity, I fear we onlookers are as helpless as those who watched the Rotunda burn from inside out. There's no way to undo the board's fiat; Sullivan will get a job elsewhere, no doubt at a "peer institution" (that is, competitor). If the current board remains, the replacement president could only be a lackey. Dragas and her cronies maintain their interest is only fiduciary, but instead they've set the whole university ablaze. For UVA's sake—and for the ideal of higher education—I hope they don't remain. We need a new board—one capable of governing.