By Peter Galuszka
Call it a Tale of Two Speeches.
One was a clear and resounding defense of one of America’s most prized possessions: its university system.
The other was Corporate-Speak – a kind of muddle of platitudes and lofty thoughts with little point that is so common among chief executive officers and company presidents today.
Teresa Sullivan, one of the most promising academics and university leaders in the U.S., has been forced out in a murky coup orchestrated by Helen Dragas, the CEO of a home building company who also is Rector of the school’s Board of Visitors.
Dragas, who holds a UVA bachelors and masters’ degree, engineered the ousting with apparently only three other members of the 16 member BOV 10 days ago, sparking outraged protests not usually seen in genteel Virginia.
Dragas has yet to give any specifics about why Dragas nailed Sullivan, rumors abound that she thought Sullivan “lacked vision” to make big chops in the schools class offerings, such as Classic, German and perhaps the Slavic Languages, wasn’t good enough at fund raising, balked at embracing online teaching (although Sullivan did) and was otherwise inadequate and lacking in the philosophical “Right Stuff” to continue leading the Public Ivy although Dragas was on the BOV when they hired Sullivan two years ago.
Conservatives have hailed the firing of Sullivan as some kind of vindication of their opinions that universities are far down the wrong road, cost too much, don’t provide efficiency, and are run by a cabal of irresponsible, free-spending professors whose world view was shaped by hated 1960s activism. You hear a lot of this drivel on this blog and the solution is to deploy “corporate” methods to get them in shape.
Here’s what Sullivan said about the issue: “Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work. UVA is one of the world’s greatest universities.”
So much for the corporate model. As far as paying coddled professors too much (and UVa faces mass hirings due to many upcoming retirements) Sullivan again: “ Nearly every faculty member here has opportunity costs for staying and has attractive options elsewhere. The faculty we most need to keep have many options elsewhere. Most of the faculty could earn more in some other organization, academic or non-academic. They stay to participate with other faculty ‘of the highest grade” and to interact with students who will be the leaders of the next generation. ‘Their financial sacrifices have their limits; of course the faculty must be appropriately compensated.”
In other words Hoo faculty love their jobs and the community and don’t want to go work for General Electric or the Bank of America or the Koch Brothers at much higher pay.
As far as cutting back on humanities and non-Stem (the buzzword for science and math to keep us competitive with the Asians), Sullivan said:
“A university that does not teach the full range of arts and sciences will no longer be a university.”
She adds: “Nor can we always predict which kind of knowledge will be of greatest import in the future. Before September 11, few of us understood just how important Arabic and other Middle
Eastern and Central Asian languages would become — to our students, to the nation, and to national security.”
Personal point there. I used to study Russian back when very few colleges offered it. The only people who seemed to want to study the language, even though it was the height of the Cold War and the Soviets could turn us to rubble in 30 minutes, were rising professors of 19th century Russian literature or people training to be spies or diplomats. Journalists like me were an odd breed. Today, the one of the very few colleges in Virginia with an adequate Slavic department is the University of Virginia, something my two daughters have benefited from.
With each sentence of Sullivan’s speech, a crowd of about 2,000 screamed in support.
What did we hear from Dragas? We got CorporateSpeak, such as “Simply put, we have the responsibility ton behalf of the entire community to make these important and often difficult calls.”
For more fun, here’s an interpretation of Dragas-speech by Waldo Jaquith at Blue Virginia:
On behalf of the Board of Visitors, I’d like to speak directly to the extended U.Va. family – to our students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends. We reach out to you today as fellow sons and daughters of this University, who studied here, matured into adulthood here, made friends here, met spouses here, and walked the hallowed Lawn.
Translation: Dear proles.
We share your love of this institution and its core values of honor, integrity, and trust. Like you, we have given our energy, commitment, and resources to the University. And, like you, we are inspired by the magic of U.Va. every time we speak with students and faculty. Through service to the University, we have had the true honor of witnessing up close all that the University community does so well.
Translation: I’m just like you. Only I was born rich. So trust me, as your relatable better.
This has been a difficult week for the University. It is never easy to announce a change in leadership, particularly after a relatively short period of time since the last selection.
(Translation) It is in no way my fault that this has been a shit week. What a funny thing that we just got a new president two years ago, and here we are doing it again! But who can say what the cause of that is, really?
And on Dragas goes. What difficult calls are those? Why is there such a need? What is your responsibity, exactly? Darden School-trained Dragas didn’t say – just more banal gobbledy-gook that I have heard from scores of CEOs in my decades as a business journalist.
Odd that one prominent blogger on the site, a Hoo himself, boomed out in any early posting that Dragas “gets it.”
Gets what?” Whatever it is still needs to be explained. From the two speeches, the contrast in leadership couldn’t be clearer.