By Peter Galuszka
The best way the University of Virginia can get out of its surrealistic nightmare is to ask Rector Helen Dragas to resign and reinstate President Teresa Sullivan. It is possible to do so, provided Dragas is gone and the board votes again on Sullivan’s future by June 27.
From the start, the shameful episode has been marked by incredibly bad mismanagement, secrecy and an insulting lack of respect for the university community and the taxpayers of Virginia. It has badly damaged the university’s high-standing reputation globally. The damage needs to be fixed.
The most damning evidence so far is a series of emails unearthed through the Freedom of Information Act between Rector Helen Dragas and former Board of Visitor member Mark Kington. The duo set up Sullivan’s ouster in secrecy and with no input from the community at large.
What the emails reveal is that Dragas and Kington, both business executives with little professional background in education, were mesmerized by a series of reports in the general media about the so-called “revolution” in online education.
Although the university has been dealing with digital education for years, Dragas and Kington got the idea in their heads that U.Va. was far behind and faced some kind of “existential” threat because it was not taking dramatic enough steps to address financial challenges or explore new ideas about online classes.
I’m no philosophy major, but the word “existential” as used here somehow seems not quite right. Indeed, if you read the emails, you find them chock-full of misspellings and misused words. Acting like Tweeting teenagers, Dragas and Kington trade gossip such as “a strange email from TS (Teresa Sullivan).” They send each other articles from such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times about the new possibilities in higher education offered by moving more to online instruction.
There’s nothing wrong with top leaders of a big university reading the general press and sharing information. But Dragas and Klington, who has since resigned, act like what they are learning is something huge that hasn’t been realized before. If they had been at all aware, they would have understood that using the Net in education has been discussed for years. It is not exactly a “revolution,” let alone a revelation.
As the Times- Dispatch reports, more professional experts were aghast at the emails. “This is governance through second-hand op-ed clippings,” according to David Karpf, who had been at U.Va.’s Miller Center for Public Affairs. “It bears no resemblance to an effectively run company, let alone an effectively run university,” he wrote. That is surprising, since both Dragas and Kington are graduates of the university’s Darden Business School. On the other hand, Dragas has no real experience running a modern, sprawling corporation. She is chief executive of a privately-held construction company started by her father and kept in her family.
Karpf takes the argument further in a Huffington Post article. He skewers the conservative debate that big institutions like U.Va. need to be turned on their heads to react to the latest fad, which happens to be online education. He traces the idea that the insular BOV was buying into the “Disruption Theory ” that was big in the 1990s. It comes from a book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” that suggests that “disruptive” people rip apart existing markets and come up with something else that is in line with the curve. Keep in mind that the book was popular when the Internet was just coming into its own. Sure it’s been disruptive since, but the idea is oh-so 1990s. That is long before 9/11, the Bush spending and the Great Crash. Today, the Internet seems passe. Believe it or not, natural gas seems the next big thing. It is almost as if Dragas and Kington are stuck back there 15 or so years ago.
A broader problem, Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media expert at U.Va., told the TD, is that this duo was ginning up what they considered to be a huge policy shift all by themselves, shut off from the rest of the university. “What Dragas and Kington wanted to do was to impose a radical vision on the university without any study, without any analysis, without any public discussion,” he said.
Exactly. This is a mortal sin, considering it happened at a university whose sine qua non is open discussion and free information. Dragas’s breach of this trust is unforgivable. She must go. Sullivan must stay.