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Reports suggest UVa board wanted president to eliminate language programs

Fired for Protecting Languages?
June 18, 2012

One of the key complaints of the board members who orchestrated the ouster of Teresa A. Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia was that she rebuffed their suggestions that she eliminate or sharply cut German programs, sources familiar with the discussions have told Inside Higher Ed. The Washington Post on Sunday reported that one of the most specific disagreements between board members and Sullivan was their view that she "lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn't sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German."

To faculty members and others at the university who have been puzzled and dismayed since word last Sunday of Sullivan's forced resignation, news that she may have been punished for protecting liberal arts disciplines seems likely only to increase support for Sullivan and anger with the Board of Visitors. Protests by faculty members and students are expected today as the board meets this afternoon, and more calls came Sunday from prominent Virginians seeking to have Sullivan continue on as president. Sullivan has asked to speak to the board in open session, but has been told that she will be permitted to speak only in closed session.

Since her resignation, Sullivan issued a brief statement citing a philosophical difference of opinion with the board and has said nothing more. Board leaders have spoken about a sense that Sullivan was not moving to address changes in higher education and was not bold enough to deal with financial challenges facing the university. Since board members have declined to elaborate, and Sullivan had instituted a well-received new budgeting system that many have said was long overdue, various theories have been floating around campus (many of them without substantiation) about the clash between Sullivan and the board.

The reports that board leaders pushed for cuts of some liberal arts programs and that Sullivan resisted are the most specific details to date about what led the board to seek her removal. So even though most people at the university assume that multiple issues were at play, the difference of opinion over these departments has many faculty members and students angry, even beyond their frustrations with Sullivan's dismissal. In part that is because UVa -- unlike many universities -- is considered a place where liberal arts are central to the institution's identity.

The departments apparently targeted by trustees also appear by outside evidence to be thriving -- even as similar language programs elsewhere have faced deep cuts and (at some institutions) declining enrollments.

Consider classics. The department's website features a quote from Thomas Jefferson, the university's founder: "To read the Greek and Latin authors in their original is a sublime luxury.... I thank on my knees him who directed my early education for having in my possession this rich source of delight."

Classics at UVa is very much alive because it is alive statewide in high schools. In 2012, Virginia had the third-highest number of students of any state (behind only New York State and Massachusetts) who took the National Latin Exam, which is offered to high schools nationwide. This strong history of Latin high school enrollments in the state has translated into strong interest in the classics at the university.

John F. Miller, chair of the department, said in an interview Sunday that student interest is so high that the department typically offers four to five sections of advanced Latin for undergraduates, typically has about 70 students at any one time majoring in classics, and graduates up to 20 a year. The Ph.D. program is small (appropriate, Miller noted, given the academic job market in the humanities) and typically graduates one or two new Ph.D.s a year.

Miller said that he woke up this morning to find e-mail messages from people around the world expressing shock and asking, "What's going on there? What can we do to help?"

In his interactions with administrators at Virginia, Miller said, he has received strong support and encouragement, so he was "flabbergasted" that board members consider classics an "obscure" department that could be eliminated. "It makes me feel mad. It's an embarrassment to the university," he said.

Jefferson and Modern Languages

While Jefferson loved the classics, he also believed it was crucial to study modern languages. In fact, in a move that went against the norms at the time he founded UVa (when leading universities in the United States focused language study on Greek and Latin), Jefferson included in his original plan for the university a School of Modern Languages, with instruction in Anglo-Saxon, French, German, Italian and Spanish.

William C. McDonald, director of undergraduate studies in German at the university, stressing that he was speaking only for himself, said it was "truly a mystery" to him how trustees could advocate the elimination of German. This summer, McDonald is teaching a full class in an intensive German program. He had to turn students away. The number of majors is relatively small (around 12), but most students who study German at the university, he noted, are majoring in philosophy or religion or history or want to go into the business world.

Noting that Germany is currently the key player in the European economy, McDonald said he could not believe a university like Virginia "was going to tell people they should go to North Carolina if they want to study German." He said that it comes down to one's "vision for a university." The choice for the university's leaders is "are you just about punching numbers or are you about the liberal arts?"

To the extent that Sullivan earned the displeasure of her bosses by refusing to cut German, McDonald said he considered her "a heroine."

Kevin Boyd, a Ph.D. student who is at work on his dissertation, "Translation, Language and Parody: Goethe's Translation Theory and Application," said he was "shocked" by the idea that trustees wanted German on the chopping block. "The German department is a big presence on the campus, with lots going on with other departments," he said.

Boyd said he came to Virginia to study because of the reputation of the professors and the strong job placement record for Ph.D.s -- and that he hasn't been disappointed. "Interaction between professors and graduate students is strong," he said.

AAUP Statement of 'Deep Concern'

The controversy at the university continues to attract attention from outside of Virginia. On Saturday, the national meeting of the American Association of University Professors adopted a statement of "deep concern" over Sullivan's dismissal, "without previous or subsequent explanation to her, to the other chief administrative officers, and to the university's faculty and student body, of the specific grounds for its displeasure with her performance." The statement noted that "[b]y all accounts, President Sullivan's performance during her two years in office was strongly supported by the university's academic community."

Faculty governance organizations have noted that they were not consulted about the board's decision, and likely would have argued against it had they been consulted. The AAUP statement noted its longstanding position "calling for a significant faculty role in contributing to judgments and decisions regarding the evaluation and retention of a president."

 

 

 

 

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