News From Elsewhere: Open Letter & No Confidence Resolution from Faculty at the University of Virginia

One of the great public universities in the United States, the University of Virginia, has been going through turmoil over the last week, with the “forced resignation” of its president, Teresa Sullivan, announced last Sunday, 10 June 2012, by the Rector (Chair) of their Board (a Board of “Visitors,” rather than a Board “Governors”). The University community is outraged at the vagueness of the statement from the Rector, Helen Dragas, and the Board’s refusal to offer any fuller rationale for an announcement that has come as a shock to the University community. When pressed early last week, Dragas returned with a statement that she had “heard” the University’s concerns, but “personnel matters” were “confidential.” The outrage is increasing hourly. An editorial in The Daily Progress this morning asserts, “The board is by definition a public body,  appointed by the governor to represent the interests of the citizens of the commonwealth in the public institution that is the University of Virginia. Those interests are not served, but undermined, by muzzling debate and dissent as a matter of policy.” Amongst other things, there have been suggestions that the Rector acted illegally by discussing the possibility of asking for Sullivan’s resignation in one-on-one meetings with select members of the Board and then calling, on less than 24-hours’ notice, for an “emergency” meeting at which the vote was taken with few members of the Board present. (Apparently, Virginia has strict laws about how the meetings of public institutions are to be conducted.) See, for example, the lively discussion on Waldo Jaquith’s blog

Why should we be paying attention?

Well, for starters, the University of Virginia, like the University of Alberta, is a member of that endangered species called the public university. All public universities should be paying close attention to the sudden dismissal of the President of a public university by its Board. But public universities under pressure to define themselves as businesses should pay special attention to this situation. Although not a great deal is known for certain at this juncture, Dragas’s statements indicate that Sullivan has been dismissed because she has not been (in Dragas’s view) sufficiently “bold and proactive” in implementing a particular financial agenda. Of the extensive media coverage across the week, the Washington Post has perhaps put the matter most bluntly: Teresa Sullivan has been “ousted” because of “her perceived reluctance to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate chief executive.”

What a turn-around! When the University of Virginia hired Sullivan just two years ago, they announced how proud they were to be welcoming a champion of public universities. (Read their announcement from two years ago here.) And all evidence is that Sullivan has been doing exactly what she was hired to do, by Dragas’s predecessor. She has been urging a budget model that will deepen the University’s commitment to its teaching. She has also been a strong advocate of the shifting of fiscal authority to academic units under a model known as “responsibility centre management.” Her commitment to the decentralization of academic authority more generally is on record in many places.

Sullivan is a sociologist by training, and her academic work is on class, debt, and labor force demography. Her books include The Fragile Middle Class: America in Debt, co-written with Jay Lawrence Westbrook and Elizabeth Warren — yes, that Elizabeth Warren — and it is clear that her scholarly work informs the principles that she brings to university governance. She is almost certainly praised as a President who has the “heart of a faculty member” because she demonstrates in her policies that she knows where the beating heart of a public university is to be found: in the connection between faculty and students in a form of education that should be as accessible as possible. As a result, the announcement last Sunday has been met with dismay not just faculty, who have been in full support of her vision of how to nurture a public university, but students too. Thirty-three chairs of the University’s “core academic unit,” its College of Arts & Sciences, have written an open letter to the Board in which they praise Sullivan, and call for “a full airing” of the purported “philosophical differences” between her and the Board. Sullivan has fostered collegial governance, and now her colleagues are standing up for her. The following day, the student council issued a similar letter. (The student council letter is here.) The Chairs of the School of Architecture have also written a letter in which they call for immediate reversal of the Board’s “destructive action.”

Open Letter From Chairs of the College of Arts & Sciences

The letter by the chairs in Arts & Sciences asserts that the University’s faculty are the “stewards” of the University’s “mission of higher education,” and the leaders of the University’s intellectual and pedagogical life.” The subtext of their assertion that they wish to “stress the central role of faculty governance in matters of academic programming and curriculum” comes into view when one starts reading the growing coverage of events in print and online, including the perspectives offered in the blogging storm from members of the University of Virginia community. In a piece that has gotten a great deal of attention, an alumna of the University of Virginia who is currently doing a Ph.D. in History at Duke suggests that everyone might wish to connect the dots between the Board’s Rector Helen Dragas, the chair of the University of Virginia’s Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees, Peter Kiernan, who is a former partner of Goldman Sachs, and Education Management Corporation, a company in which Goldman Sachs has acquired a major stake. EDMC advertises itself as “one of the largest providers of private post-secondary education in North America.” You can read Ms. Anne-Marie Angelo’s theory about the connections here.

“Strategic Dynamism”

Peter Kiernan resigned from the Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees on Thursday when an email he had sent to other Darden members informing them that he and two other alumni had been working, for several weeks, on the “project” of President Sullivan’s removal became public.

Mr. Kiernan’s email refers to President Sullivan as not capable of the “strategic dynamism” required of her in relation to a “new economic model.” Dragas’s initial statement, which claims that the University of Virginia’s Board “believe[s] that higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions,” suggests that this “strategic dynamism” would have been best expressed in the form of Sullivan’s agreement that the University would introduce online teaching in a shape or form that President Sullivan refused to endorse as incompatible with the University’s mission. President Sullivan may have been forced out, in short, because she has been standing up against the kind of “disruption” that a post on Colloquy this Winter suggested may be necessary to keeping universities “relevant” in the twenty-first century.

Disrupting “Disruption”?

Questions on Colloquy about what vision of the University lay behind that claim went unanswered. But if you read one of the the articles to which that post directed readers, Jeff Selingo’s “A Disrupted Higher-Ed System” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, you’ll see that it suggests that none of this logic should apply to “high-quality institutions.”  It is only “aspiring colleges” that will make these “disruptive” choices. Perhaps Teresa Sullivan has insisted behind closed doors that online education is not an option that an institution of the University of Virginia’s calibre should pursue. She has certainly been quietly firm in public speeches that demands for the University of Virginia to be more “efficient” are inapposite given how high the University scores in American value-for-money rankings and other measures.

But none of this is clear. Which is why the University of Virginia community is objecting so strenuously to the lack of transparency from their Board as to why it has asked their President to pack her bags.

“Whims of the Wealthy”

The University’s Robertson Chair in Media Studies, Siva Vaidhyanathan, has published a sharp piece on in which, after a critique of the “cultish diction” of “strategic dynamism” and the Board’s silence “in the face of harsh and universal condemnation” of its action, he suggests the episode be construed as evidence of what occurs when insufficient public funding of public universities makes them dependent upon private money:

The reason folks such as Dragas and Kiernan get to call the shots at major universities is that they write huge, tax-deductable checks to them. They buy influence and we subsidize their purchases. So too often an institution that is supposed to set its priorities based on the needs of a state or the needs of the planet instead alters its profile and curriculum to reflect the whims of the wealthy. Fortunately this does not happen often, and the vast majority of donors simply want to give back to the institutions that gave them so much. They ask nothing in return and admire the work we do. But it happens often enough to significantly undermine any sense of democratic accountability for public institutions.

And therein lies the most pressing reason we all ought to be sitting up and paying attention. What’s happening right now at the University of Virginia is probably the sharpest, clearest, most public case yet for the dilemmas that public universities face when they let private interests, a market ideology, and corporate thinking drive their decision-making. What gets displaced, and is at risk of being lost? The core mission of the public university. “Universities do not have ‘business models,'” Professor Vaidhyanathan writes:

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.

President Sullivan may have no interest in being reinstated after this debacle. Let us trust that a university with genuine insight into the challenges facing public universities at this moment in their history moment — and the kind of solutions that will preserve them —gives her a home. But as a result of the decisions that have been taken, for whatever reasons have been driving them, the faculty at one of North America’s great public universities are considering a no-confidence vote in its Board.

No Confidence Vote in Board

On Thursday, June 14th, after its attempts to secure from its Board a “full and candid explanation of this sudden and drastic change in University leadership” were unsuccessful, the Executive of the Faculty Senate of the University of Virginia issued a resolution that it will be asking the Faculty Senate as a whole to take up at an emergency meeting, today, Sunday, June 17th, at 5 p.m. The Executive’s statement of Thursday reads as follows:

The University of Virginia Faculty Senate Executive Council met this afternoon in emergency session and unanimously adopted the following resolution.


University of Virginia Faculty Senate Resolution on the Resignation of President Sullivan

Resolved, that the Faculty Senate of the University of Virginia hereby:

1. Expresses its strong support of President Sullivan.

2. Expresses its lack of confidence in the Rector, the Vice Rector, and the Board of Visitors.

We offer this resolution mindful of the best interests of the University and the Commonwealth.

They mean the Commonwealth of Virginia, of course. But it could be argued that they are standing up for a commonwealth that knows no national boundaries, and cannot be in fact located in any one place, though public universities give it a special life. If you’d like to participate in that transnational commonwealth, there’s a petition you can sign at

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1 Response to News From Elsewhere: Open Letter & No Confidence Resolution from Faculty at the University of Virginia

  1. Carolyn Sale says:

    Further analysis of news from elsewhere, from a friend:

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