It seems my friends and colleagues at the University of Virginia have only two choices left to them: fight or flight.
Siva Vaidhyanathan (UVA’s media studies department chair) has penned the definitive take on what’s transpired at Mr. Jefferson’s University. The Board of Visitors (Regents) quietly decided to fire University President Teresa Sullivan. Sullivan was only in her second year on the job. She was tremendously popular, and the move came as a complete shock to everyone. In the ensuing week and a half, the Faculty Senate has issued a Vote of No Confidence in the Board of Visitors, the Board of Visitors has rejected all opportunities at transparency, and (last night), the Dean of the Commerce School was named Interim President.
The Board of Visitors has still offered no explanation for the firing. Sullivan was in the process of making reforms to the university, but Rector Helen Dragas felt they weren’t “disruptive” enough.* (…Because apparently a university that prides itself on maintaining Jeffersonian traditions — Professors are still gleefully referred to as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” rather than “Doctor,” because that’s how TJ liked it — is exactly the place for big, bold changes.) The most credible rumors point to Sullivan opposing deep cuts or outright elimination of programs that don’t turn a profit — greek and latin, in particular. No one knows for sure, but it is illustrative that the Board hasn’t come up with a better explanation in the past week. They’ve hired a crisis PR firm, but haven’t been able to come up with a convincing counternarrative.
Dragas’s handling of this situation qualifies as the worst PR snafu of the year. (Good news for the Komen Foundation! They’re now number 2.) With every opportunity to clarify their thinking or revisit the issue, Dragas and the Board of Visitors have doubled down on the opaqueness. Last night’s Board meeting lasted for 12 hours and occurred behind closed doors, while thousands of UVA students and faculty waited outside. The message is clear: a few rich donors run the University of Virginia now. Faculty, students, and alumni have no voice. Neither informal shouting nor formal condemnation will make any difference. Trust the wealthy. They saw a cool powerpoint about the future of higher eduction once.
I spent the 2008-2009 schoolyear at UVA, as a Resident Fellow at the Miller Center for Public Affairs. The campus was bucolic. The faculty and students took pride in their university and its unique history. The school even had positive town-gown relations with the city of Charlottesville. Charlottesville is a wonderful place for faculty to raise their kids. It’s big enough to have nice arts and culture, but small enough to maintain a small town feel. The campus is just far enough away from downtown Charlottesville that undergrads and townies can enjoy their own types of fun. UVA is the type of school where faculty want to end their careers. Or at least, it was.
What would it like to be a faculty member in 2012-13? Regardless of what this new interim President says, what faith could I put in him? The Board of Visitors calls the shots. It has an aggressive vision, it refuses to inform the faculty, students, or broader public of what that vision is, and it refuses to listen to any other university stakeholders. If I worked at the business school or law school, I imagine I’d feel safe. But humanities? Social Sciences? Hard sciences?
As an individual faculty member, I would be preparing my CV right now. Higher education is under attack all across the country, but UVA has just become the single least attractive destination. (Good news for Penn State! Who could have imagined…) That’s the “flight” response. Pack your bags, hit the job market. As President Sullivan noted in her brief public remarks yesterday, “deans and provosts at every peer institution are setting aside funds now to raid the University of Virginia.” UVA is headed toward a future as a nice, short-term destination for Visiting Assistant Professors. Individually, you cannot prevent that and you do not deserve that.
The other option is, collectively, to fight. I don’t believe there has ever been a full-scale strike whose sole demand was “give us our former management back.” But if the Board of Visitors has decided to be ludicrous, then be ludicrous in response. Call a full-faculty strike, effective immediately. Cease teaching summer classes. Only conduct research that cannot be postponed. Get out the placards, head to the rotunda, and start marching. Revolutionary Soups and Eppie’s on the mall can provide lunch.
A strike could work for one simple reason: no one is on the Board of Visitors’s side. Not the public. Not the press. Not the students. Not the faculty. Not the alumni. Dragas’s only play here is to hope it goes away. Give the media no visuals, and in a week the story will turn to something else.
If the story keeps going, then Dragas has no choice but to resign in disgrace. She has disgraced herself and her entire university, it’s as simple as that. Hell, you can even strike while also preparing for flight. No dean or provost would think less of you for standing up here and now, because no dean or provost would ever imagine that such absurd mismanagement would happen at their own university.
It’s a terrible situation. There’s no middle ground, UVA is coming unglued, the plaything of wealthy, unresponsive hacks. Faculty can either stand together and keep the story going, or they can stand apart and quietly disperse. Whichever they decide, my heart goes out to them.
*I study disruptive innovation for a living. What Dragas is calling for is the Cliff’s Notes version of disruption. It’s the I-read-about-it-during-a-redeye-flight version of disruption. If she were proposing this in my class, I’d give her a B-. We’d then spend the class period dissecting the pretty blatant mistakes she was making. Alas, since Helen Dragas is wealthy and powerful, she has no need for studying the actual thing. I’m sure the version of disruptive innovation in her head is far easier to understand.