The University of Virginia is becoming the train wreck from which I can’t look away.
I am a UVa alumnus. It’s where we went to medical school. And though most people feel their truest affinity towards their undergraduate institution, it’s not that way for me. Even though I didn’t start there till graduate school, I really love UVa, and I feel very much that it was the defining university in my life. I realize that part of my affection for “The University,” as it’s obnoxiously called, has nothing to do with UVa itself. It’s the place where I met my husband, where I made wonderful friends, where I experienced some of the most concentrated personal and professional growth of my life. And it’s located in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is unarguably charming. But part of my feeling toward UVa very much is due to the characteristics of the place itself. It’s a school with rich history (the beloved pet project of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson) and talented and generous faculty, and an institution that generally has had high standards for excellence (it routinely ranks as the #1 or #2 public school in the United States.) I was proud to have been a child of UVa, where I genuinely felt (at least in the School of Medicine, which is the only department to which I can personally speak) that the faculty and staff truly wanted each of us to succeed, and cheered us on when we did. And I was pleasantly surprised by the doors that UVa opened.
Over the past nine days, however, UVa has been in the public eye, and not for anything good. A quick recap, for those of you far and wide who may not have heard this story: Two years ago, UVa’s popular president of 20 years, John Casteen, retired. An extensive search was conducted for the next president, and Teresa Sullivan from the University of Michigan was selected with much pomp and circumstance as the first female president of UVa. (Shameful fact: women weren’t even admitted as full students to UVa until 1970.) By all accounts she did well. Then on June 10 an announcement was made by the head of the Board of Visitors, Helen Dragas, that, by mutual decision, Sullivan was submitting her resignation after less than 2 years. In that resignation, Sullivan attributed her leaving to “broad philosophical differences” with the BOV. This was a shock to everyone — staff, students and alumni — as there had been no indication there was anything wrong. Dragas implied in her statement that the board had unanimously agreed to remove Sullivan. Rumours abounded. An e-mail was accidentally leaked later that night from Peter Kiernan, a member of the board of UVa’s Darden School of Business, indicating that Helen Dragas had contacted him months earlier to work on a special, secret “project”: taking down Teresa Sullivan.
Reporters then discovered that, far from being a unanimous decision of the governing Board, a formal vote had never actually been taken. Dragas had simply, over a period of months, gone behind the scenes to individual board members and drummed up support for removing Sullivan, and she did that until she had enough votes to support her. 3 of the 16 members did not even know a campaign to eliminate Sullivan was going on. Further, Dragas selected a time for the meeting to make this announcement that seems suspiciously self-serving: it was a summer Sunday when many students and faculty were gone, the governor of Virginia (who appoints the members to this board) was out of the country on state business, and the 3 board members who were kept in the dark and were apparently supportive of Sullivan were known to be unable to attend (one was recovering from surgery, for example.) Additionally, she called it an emergency meeting, which does not require the 3 days’ advance notice a regular meeting does, presumably so it would be more likely to slide under the public’s radar. However, this announcement doesn’t exactly meet the requirements of an emergency meeting, making this whole shebang possibly illegal.
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that a firestorm has erupted on UVa’s campus. Students and faculty alike are outraged. The Faculty Senate has passed a no-confidence vote in the Board of Visitors. The Honors Council and Student Council have released calls for action. The Provost of the university said in a speech on Father’s Day that he wanted his sons to see him act in a courageous manner, so he was going to wait to see what the BOV did over the next few days to decide whether UVa was still an institution he wanted to help lead. Multiple faculty members have resigned or threatened to resign, stating that they don’t want to be part of an institution where such a backroom coup d’etat could occur without consequence. Several prominent alumni have halted their donations until Dragas and her right-hand man, Mark Kington, resign or a full explanation is provided. Peter Kiernan, the hapless author of the e-mail
bragging about “explaining” his role in the situation, was forced to resign.
Meanwhile, Sullivan, like a classy person, stayed silent and out of sight until yesterday’s BOV meeting to appoint a new interim president, at which she had asked to address the board. They agreed, but only in private (of course; secrecy is what this board is best at, no matter how much it’s beaten over their heads that secrecy comes with serious consequences.) She waited in her office until the appointed time, at which point she began her walk across UVa’s historic Lawn with her husband, a law professor at UVa, to the thunderous applause of a crowd of thousands that had gathered in her support and that parted like the Red Sea for Moses to allow her to pass, patting her back on the way. I so wish I could have been there for that. I love to see people supporting an underdog, which is sure what she seems like at this point.
Sullivan gave a 14-page statement that you can read in full here, which strongly defended her record and in which she said that other institutions “are setting aside funds now to raid the University of Virginia next year given the current turmoil on our campus.” In fact professors at UVa apparently do not make nearly as much there as they could at other universities, for various reasons including the fact that the state of Virginia does not provide as much financial support as other states do to their schools. This means that UVa professors stay because they love working at UVa. How long can that desire be expected to continue if the school is known to be run like a hyperactive guillotine, you ask? Well, not long, apparently, as William Wulf, one of the top 20 professors at UVa, has just publicly submitted his resignation. The faculty are circulating a petition to refuse to recognize the newly appointed interim president who is thought to be a mere pawn of the money-hungry BOV. If prospective students aren’t scared away by this debacle, I’ll be shocked.
Meanwhile, Dragas released her own infuriating statement, a hilarious version of which you can read here, if you feel confident in your ability to keep your lunch down (and if you can excuse the bad language.) She states she and the Board know how upset everyone is, and how we the people deserve the truth. She then proceeds … not to give it. She blathers on forever in executive double-speak in that wonderful way public figures do without actually saying anything, but she does make it clear that the BOV is not going to listen to the concerns of the people they serve, and they are still moving forward with replacing Sullivan. And she never comes out and tells everyone what they are demanding to know: why precisely was Teresa Sullivan fired?
Look, I’m not naive. I freely admit I don’t know much about Sullivan. Before last week, I’d have been hard-pressed to name her as the current president of my alma mater. For all I know, she could be a serial killer and Helen Dragas could be the brave princess protecting us all from Sullivan’s hungry pickaxe. But if that’s the case, then why not say so? The fact that the BOV is refusing to provide an explanation does not make them look like the noble protectors of Sullivan’s reputation, as they’re trying to make themselves out to be. It makes them look like villains who know they did something unethical and shady. Which leaves it up to journalists and the public to try to figure out the real reason why. Conspiracy theories are running rampant, but the biggest one is that Dragas and her cohorts wanted to allow an online-education company (think DeVry or the University of Phoenix) to use UVa’s name in exchange for a cash windfall, and Sullivan refused to cheapen the school by doing so. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of Media Studies at UVa, has a fascinating Slate article on the businesspeople behind Sullivan’s ouster and their motives, and why it’s dangerous for the future of education. It is dangerous, and it’s frightening. Education is not meant to be run as a business, and it will never be successful in its goal of actually educating people if it is. It’s meant to be a public service. Not a free one, necessarily, and certainly not one that hemorrhages resources, of course — but its goal has to be higher than the bottom line, or only subjects that quantitatively make money will ever be taught. What is the human race without classics, Latin, or wildlife biology?
There have been numerous calls for Virginia governor Robert McDonnell to get involved, but he refused to “meddle” in the doings of an independent board. At first I understood where he was coming from, until I read a comment somewhere (wish I could remember where so I could give due credit) that him not getting involved actually is meddling, because it’s allowing a board to get away with illegal, dictatorial behaviour. Now McDonnell has released a lukewarm statement saying he wished things had been done a little differently, which is kind of like saying one wishes Enron had kept their books a little differently. If outright wrongdoing has taken place, and so far I have seen no evidence that it hasn’t, who is going to stop these people if not the governor? He also says people in charge often have to make choices that are “unpopular” with employees. Really, my friend? Thank you for opening my eyes to the ways of the real world! My beef, and I think the beef of most other people interested in this story, is not that the president was removed. It’s how it was done. There’s a difference, which we understand because we’re not, you know, four years old. And now there are rumours that McDonnell isn’t stepping in because he was involved in the takedown too.
Dragas (what an unfortunate name! Someone online has taken to calling her “Lady Draga,” which is rather inspired) has so far steadfastly refused to step down despite the growing demands for her resignation. Her crony Mark Kington just resigned tonight, but it’s not going to be enough. Last night after the marathon board meeting to pick the interim president, Dragas was apparently heckled as she walked to her car. She responded, “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.” Who else can we believe, Helen dear? You haven’t told us a thing! Dragas supposedly pushed out Sullivan because she wasn’t making enough money for the university, but Dragas’ own continued presence on the board is causing faculty to leave and alumni to halt their donations. Now Dragas has hired a PR firm to repair her reputation. Guess who’s paying that bill, according to the Washington Post? The UVA Foundation, which is financed by alumni donations! My fellow UVa alums, WE ARE PAYING FOR THIS WOMAN’S SPIN DOCTORS. Am I right that we should no longer donate to our school until this disaster is rectified and an apology issued? I hate to do it, and not that the amount we can afford to donate would ever be missed, but money seems to be the only language with which to speak to these people.
The whole thing just smacks of Mean Girls-esque behaviour. Dragas apparently had it in for Sullivan from the first day she was hired. I don’t know why, because the BOV hasn’t explained any of their actions to us. But you could kind of tell even in that first e-mail they sent to us alumni, in which they repeatedly thanked “Terry” for her hard work and wished “Terry” well. I’m sorry, but when was the last time you heard anyone refer to former President Casteen as “John”? The current president’s name is Dr. Sullivan, and to deliberately use not just her first name but a diminutive to me seems intentionally patronizing and sexist.
So basically, I’m appalled. I keep waiting and waiting for the truth to come out and the Board to be forced to bear the public consequences of its actions, but I guess only time will tell. It’s at times like these that my love for the press, as a journalism major, swells my heart. Thank goodness we live in a society where, though imperfect, at least the press will demand answers. The WaPo and Charlottesville’s Hook have done great investigative pieces on this story, if you’re interested in more.
Admittedly one reason I’ve gotten so interested is because it’s an effective distraction from the fact that the next phase of cancer treatment started for me this week. On Sunday we took Peanut to meet her grandparents, so she can be away while I’m in isolation. I didn’t cry till after she left, so that’s an accomplishment. She’ll be away for two and a half weeks, which will be a blast for her as she splits that between both sets of doting grandparents, but an eternity for us. Yesterday I received my first Thyrogen injection, and today I received my second, as well as bloodwork and a test dose of radioactive iodine. Tomorrow I go in for a whole-body scan, and Thursday is my full dose of RAI. Thursday at 6 PM is also the moment when I am “released” from the dastardly low-iodine diet, which has forced me to sate my chocolate cravings with lumpy improvisations. I present to you low-iodine imitation brownies (try not to lick the screen):
Tonight is also my first isolation night in our basement. See my home away from home below (yes, that is my office, and yes that is our treadmill.) Cramped, yes, but just think of the quick commute!
So that’s what’s going on on this end. Hope you’re all well, friends. And hope our school will be too.