SHARE

Wet Blanket for U.Va.

July 2, 2012

"Are you kidding me?"

That was one of the posts Friday on a Facebook page devoted to defending Teresa A. Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia, after news broke that Helen Dragas has been appointed to another term on the university's Board of Visitors.

Dragas, as rector (or board chair), orchestrated the ouster of Sullivan and defended the move right up until the Board of Visitors voted (with the assent of Dragas) to keep Sullivan on. Many faculty members, students and alumni objected not only to Dragas's views on Sullivan, but also to the way she engineered what appeared to be (before massive protests) a departure for the popular president. Dragas never held a board vote on Sullivan, but informed a number of board members that the rest were already comfortable with the plan, and she gained their approval based on what some have said was incomplete information. And she never consulted with faculty leaders, who viewed Sullivan as off to a strong start as president, and who valued her appreciation for the university's values.

When the Board of Visitors last month voted unanimously to reinstate Sullivan last month, many of Dragas's critics figured they had only a few more days to worry about her. Her term expired July 1, she is wildly unpopular on campus, and she had been appointed by a Democrat while the current governor is a Republican.

So when Governor Bob McDonnell announced Friday afternoon that he was bringing Dragas back -- and did so with statements that suggested an endorsement for her ideas -- many were surprised. Others hypothesized (without evidence) that some kind of political deal had been made in which the Board of Visitors would reinstate Sullivan, but Dragas would remain on the Board of Visitors.

"Just as I was disappointed to see the lack of transparency and communication surrounding the request for the resignation of the first female president of U.Va, I am also concerned that the first female rector seemed to become the sole target of recent criticism," McDonnell's statement said. "While there is no doubt that the board made several mistakes in its actions, which it has publicly admitted, this is not a time for recrimination. It's a time for reconciliation..... 

"I look forward to the board and administration moving forward together. The university's tradition is the embrace of inquiry, critical thinking and change, which the rector and many others bring to the table. Ms. Dragas's serious critique of the challenges facing the university is a voice that must be heard, and can help, in ensuring U.Va. remains one of the world's foremost institutions of higher learning."

Shortly after McDonnell's announcement, Sullivan issued a statement praising his actions. The governor made a number of board appointments, and Sullivan referred to them collectively, not mentioning Dragas. "Governor McDonnell used great wisdom in appointing these members to the University's board, and I am grateful for his understanding of the challenges facing higher education. This is a group of distinguished individuals -- from higher education and technology to government and health care -- who will be able to hit the ground running. Their collective expertise will be invaluable, as there is much work to be done," Sullivan said.

In his announcement, the governor noted that the chair of the Faculty Senate had indicated a willingness to work with Dragas, if Sullivan said she believed that could be done. And immediately after Sullivan's statement, the university released another from George Cohen, the Faculty Senate chair. "Together with President Sullivan, we look forward to working with all the new and returning Board members. With respect to Rector Dragas, as I stated and the governor quoted, if President Sullivan can work with the rector, we can as well," Cohen said.

"We believe that the immediate challenge we face is one of restoring trust. We pledge to support President Sullivan in her efforts to work with the board to rebuild a trusting and caring community. We agree with the governor that full and open discussions about strategy and goals are crucial, even though they may lead to disagreement. So long as disagreements take place in the context of relationships in which trust is a given, meaningful and expeditious progress can be made toward solving the challenging problems we face."

The news about Dragas -- and the prompt statements endorsing the governor's choices -- struck many at the university as a sign of a deal.

"Everyone on the faculty I have spoken to is upset over Dragas's reappointment. She has operated dishonestly and below the standards of honor and trust that the U.Va. community expects," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, chair of media studies and one of the professors who has been outspoken in criticizing the move to oust Sullivan. "We can only assume that this was part of some inside deal the governor made in the process of restoring Sullivan and getting a unanimous vote for her."
 
Vaidhyanathan said he hoped that the other board members and Sullivan could prevent damage by Dragas. "Dragas cannot be a public voice or face of the Board or of U.Va. She has no credibility. Every time her name is associated with U.Va. she hurts the reputation of the university."
 
While Dragas has never offered a full explanation for her move against Sullivan, her public statements have suggested that she believes the world of higher education is changing so quickly that the university needs to move more quickly in new directions, including online education. While most of Sullivan's defenders don't dispute that the economics of higher education are increasingly challenging, and that online education is taking off, they have argued that these challenges do not justify abandoning the traditions of shared governance or a strong commitment to the liberal arts.
 
Many of those speaking out say that they feel the governor's action suggests that he doesn't understand why people were so angry about the push to oust Sullivan. "How's that for a poke in the eye?" one alumnus told The Hook, a Charlottesville newspaper. "Maybe both eyes?"
 
Comments on the article about Dragas staying on the board in the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, were a mix of shock and anger. "How is it possible that our university's great legacy be run through the mud by the BOV and the rector not lose her job?" asked one reader.

 

Most:

  • Viewed
  • Commented
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Loading results...
Back to Top