Civil War in Jefferson Country: Lessons from the University of Virginia

On June 21, 2012 by admin

Brinda Bose

A rain-drizzled, splendidly-verdant, sleepily-calm campus it was, just about a month ago, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, USA – so much so that many of its residents would often laugh and exclaim at its placidity, the almost paradisiacal quality of an island-in-the-mild-northern-spring-sun quite untouched by the rowdinesses that we of the alarming tropics both fear and desire in our daily lives. So much so, in fact, that at a conference on Global Humanities at the UVa’s newly-minted Institute for the Humanities and Global Cultures at the end of April, where I was part of a presentation on new administrative policies in Indian higher education (which some of us on our campus here in Delhi perceive as nothing less than an orchestrated, concentrated attack on academia as we value it), it was received by many of the local audience – made up of faculty members across the humanities and social science disciplines, deans and other administrative stalwarts of the UVa – with sympathy and surprise. A few expressed outrage about what was happening at a faraway campus (perhaps quietly thanking their stars for being at the University of Virginia rather than of Delhi). A couple of others (presumably of UVa Rector Helen Dragas’s ilk, as it appears with hindsight) implied in their comments and questions that we in Delhi were perhaps rather naïve to even expect that an university would be run in any way differently from a corporate – what kind of an arcane idealism was that?

It aroused curiosity, the Delhi University story of midnight show-cause notices that stank of fake legalese, accompanied by photographic evidence of sniffer dogs, police men and women and rope cordons around a regular Committee of Courses meeting at which its members were to be coerced, initially with veiled threats and ultimately with open punitive action, to sign in favour of what the Vice Chancellor and his team had decreed for the institution: wild and wicked systemic changes whose fallouts, in just over a year or so, Delhi University is already beginning to crumble under. Those there who were far more sharply attuned to grave and fatal rumblings in academia all across the globe (and there were, of course, many of them) knew, of course, that horrific and melodramatic as the unfolding, ongoing DU story was, it was symptomatic of the times we were all thrashing about in.

But even they, I can wager, did not in their most vile nightmares imagine that a so-very-similar horror would slam upon their summer-somnolent Charlottesville ‘Grounds’ like a frenzied tornado within the month, just as the last batches of students had slunk away for a glorious summer break after ‘end-sem’ examinations and the beautifully leafy campus was drawing a quiet fragrant breath or two to build up spirit and stamina again for the new academic year to come. I can bet that, even as some of them spoke with pride of the University’s high-ranked Darden School of Business, they did not in their most bizarre dreams imagine it would bring them so much shame and sorrow just as the sun grew stronger on the tall trees and rolling greens and their lovely stately buildings. Brandishing “strategic dynamism” as a weapon in the face of a slow-and-steady academic vision, and ravaging the edifices of loyalty and love among alumni, donors, students and staff overnight that take years of care and understanding to build, a fresh new management-oriented policy of governance has, as suddenly as the proverbial storm on a blithe summer’s day, brought mayhem and melancholy to the University of Virginia this historic June of 2012. And as is already evident from the outpouring of articles, open letters, Facebook posts and tweets, and the massive – now nationwide in America and fast turning global – outburst of reportage, interviews and analyses in the media, the charming, bucolic University of Virginia at Charlottesville will certainly never be the same again – even if, as latest news filtering in gives hope, the tide is stemmed and turned.

Just a week ago, two years into her five-year-term, Teresa Sullivan was summarily dismissed from her post as President of the University of Virginia, to the complete shock and disbelief of the majority of the staff and students on campus. Helen Dragas, Rector of UVa’s Board of Visitors (what we in India know usually as a Governing Board/Body), explained this decision cryptically, thus: “The Board believes that in the rapidly changing and highly pressurized external environment in both health care and in academia, the University needs to remain at the forefront of change.” The sticking point, however, was that Sullivan was largely seen as a successful leader in what are extremely difficult times for public universities all over the world, and the one who was attempting to bring change to the institution with vision and grace. This was a very rotten bolt from a pretty serene blue. Bewildered, and convinced that there must be a good explanation for this unexpected move from the Board, the faculty began to ask questions – fast, furious, and increasingly embarrassing. What was revealed subsequently was a tale of Machiavellian wringing and stringing, in the true style of corporate boardroom politicking: hardly astonishing, however, given that the chief protagonists who engineered this coup d’etat under cover of darkness were Rector Dragas and a bunch of wealthy donors to the university, in cahoots with a group of university insiders, some members of the Darden business school of the UVa – fie on them, most of all. (And could Dragas have been better named? Dickensian, according to an astute Facebook comment; one’s literary soul is sated at once.)

Farcically enough, an email sent out by hedge-fund billionaire, former Goldman Sachs partner and member of the foundation board of UVa’s business school Peter Kienan by a mistaken ‘reply all’ hit to more people on a university list than was intended, revealed that Sullivan’s removal was shamelessly ‘managed’ by some who are most possessed of those skills by academic training, through silence, lies and cunning – Dragas did not even call a Board meeting before the ouster, but spoke to some of its members individually and then threatened Sullivan that she had enough votes to fire her if she did not resign. Baffled but dignified, Sullivan did the civilized thing and handed in her resignation, and retreated to consult with family and lawyers, not even responding to the thousands of messages and calls she began to receive from university colleagues and well-wishers in solidarity and shock. She requested merely that she be allowed to address the Board of Visitors when it met this past Monday, and asked that the meeting be public. Dragas agreed to a closed door hearing; Sullivan agreed, and circulated her statement as a public document after the meeting. Well before then, of course, Sullivan had become something of a Joan of Arc for colleagues and students on UVa’s beloved and beautiful ‘Grounds’, which swelled in indignant protest over the weekend into a massive rally to “save” the University from a bunch of managerial bigots. Alumni donors and parents of past and present students grew vociferous in their condemnation of an outrageously brazen act of power-mongering and money-flexing that was unbelievably detrimental to the rich academic spirit of this nearly-200-year-old university, founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson.

On Sunday (June 17th) evening in the middle of its summer break, the faculty senate gathered in an emergency meeting to deliberate upon the options available to them to put pressure on the Board to reinstate Sullivan as President and change gears to damage-control-mode in Jefferson country. On Monday afternoon while the Board met to hurriedly announce an ‘interim President’ to try and quell the swelling trouble on campus, a 2,000-strong crowd of angry and disappointed protestors made up of faculty, students, administrators and even a former President of the UVa gathered on the steps of the massive, impressive Rotunda, built by Jefferson as the historic nerve-centre of the campus, to press the Board into reversing its decision. The Board heard out Sullivan’s solemn and decorous statement (all documents relating to the unfolding UVa scandal are available on the net) and went ahead to announce its chosen interim President without an iota of embarrassment: Carl Zeithaml, the current Dean of the McIntire School of Commerce at UVa, whose curriculum vitae boasts of a specialization in – don’t hold your breath – ‘strategic management’.

What would be the most astounding thing in all this if it did not so easily resonate with what is happening in universities the world over, alas, are the reasons for Sullivan’s ouster. Her sin, it appears, is that she was much more of a university administrator than a business person; she refused to cut “obscure” and low-yield programmes like the Classics and German, and rejected a plan to bring online education to the university. The main criticism leveled against her was that she was too “incremental”, (rather than being strategically dynamic, presumably), that she was too steeped in academic culture (how did she ever imagine she could be that, right, to lead a 200-year-old public university?) and too resistant to plans for bringing “top-down, corporate style management” to UVa. For all these very original sins, her head rolled.

But it may not be a bandwagon to just jump on to blindly, as Sullivan’s tempered choices indicate; it is quite amazing, of course, how many American universities, just by herd instinct, might follow Harvard and Stanford and Wall Street Journal edits to “go online”, as Dragas had myopically suggested in early messages to her conformist peers on the Board.  Online courses will never be as rigorous (or as difficult) as interactive ones. Given the economic downturn, the best institutions are inclined toward opening online services and overseas branches for easy money. If UVa wishes to follow that trend, there is no need to fashion it into an argument for academic excellence. At least in India we know that the results of distance education have not been about excellence: it means polytechnic vocationalization, in which teachers know how to calibrate their lectures for an online audience.

So UVa’s Board of Visitors led by the Dragas-lady has had its way for now, though the picture continues to change dramatically even as I write. An interim President who will be strategic rather than academic has been put in place. Sullivan is already being wooed by other institutions in the country, and the one which is lucky to snare this apparently quiet efficient academic visionary will win what will surely be charming Charlottesville’s monumental loss – not merely in the enforced departure of someone who seems to be a fine individual but in a far more insidious, dangerous way, in the damaging of the spirited aspirations of an entire academic community. And what Sullivan somberly warned in her statement on Monday, June 19th at the Rotunda (on whose grand pillars vandalists had spray-painted G-R-E-E-D in bold black letters the night before, in disgust at the dirty hands among Board members), that universities across America were waiting to ferret away UVa’s best teachers, students and administrators in the wake of this upheaval, has startlingly begun to come true within a day of its utterance: one of only 13 holding the title ‘University Professor’ at UVa, William Wulf of the Computer Science department submitted his letter of resignation to the Board on June 20th, declaring: “In my opinion the BoV has perpetrated the worst example of corporate governance I have ever seen. To repeat – I resign. I want no part of this ongoing fiasco.” On Wednesday June 21st, another professor of the Biology department has filed his papers. If this marks the beginning of a real as much as symbolic exodus of eminent faculty, the Board of Visitors at UVa may well soon be holding an unwashed baby while the bathwater drains.

As many analysts in newspapers and journals all over the world are beginning to conclude about the implications of this enormous academic scandal in Virginia, the seriousness of it lies in that it is symptomatic of higher education policies everywhere. Siva Vaidhyanathan, Professor of Media Studies at UVa wrote in a prominently-circulating piece immediately after the flames of shock and horror began to engulf his campus: “The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history. Universities do not have ‘business models’. They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.”

But as we can all see, universities are being made to have “business models”. I have been following articles and statements circulating on the UVa case this past week, and what is most frightening is how much the Dragasian model of university administration and aspiration is instantly recognized as the draconian rule of law that is being laid upon other academic communities almost everywhere, from Georgia, USA to Cambridge, UK to our very own doorstep. What is most inspirational about the UVa story, however, is in the way such a huge chunk of the university’s extended community, past and present, has rallied boisterously and bravely around their ousted President, rightly seeing in this mischief of the BoV a far huger and horrific assault on academia at large. Those of us who are connected in some way to the University of Virginia, and even those of us who are not, will surely wish for it a speedy recovery of spirit and form and equanimity. Charlottesville has been truly heroic – some downtown business establishments even closed shop on Monday afternoon so that its workers could attend the protest at the university’s Rotunda in solidarity with UVa’s majority – and UVa’s larger community has demonstrated a fierce and admirable collective investment in an academic institution with a vision for change that is incremental rather than strategic. This is enormously inspirational, for the youth that it seeks to nurture and prepare for life, and for all of us who see resonances in the policies governing our own institutions today.

Early this morning, there are reports that Sullivan has been persuaded by the groundswell of support swirling around her to let the BoV know that she will be willing to rejoin as President of the UVa if Rector Dragas resigns. There has already been a key resignation of a Dragas aficionado from the Board, and there are increasingly-loud murmurs that the numbers in favour of Sullivan’s ouster are not really what Dragas indicated. If Sullivan is reinstated as head of the University of Virginia in the next few days, it will be a magnificent sign of how much public outrage and spontaneous mobilization can actually achieve in the face of undemocratic, sinister and completely unscrupulous machinations. After all, the powers that be, always and always, are but people’s creatures!

Postscript. If, however, people’s power does not prevail at UVa after all, I wonder if Teresa Sullivan could be persuaded to leap across a couple of continents to pursue her leadership instincts in a different place with a snarkily-similar set-up of education power-brokers? I have a feeling that there will be many of us in various universities across the world who might be thinking the same this week.

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Brinda Bose teaches in the Department of English, University of Delhi.

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