By Peter Galuszka
It appears that the conflicts between Helen Dragas and Teresa Sullivan are far from over.
After all the brouhaha last summer between the head of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors and its president – a battle that got national attention and sparked lots of questions at universities around the country – not much appears to have been resolved.
Dragas engineered a coup against Sullivan last June only to be forced to reinstate her. Against plenty of opposition, Dragas herself was reinstated by the General Assembly.
It was probably naïve to expect peace “on Grounds” at the venerable school. Dragas recently marched in with a list of 65 goals for Sullivan (as if she needs help). The Association of American University Professors has bashed Dragas and the board in a report and now the UVa Faculty Senate is pushing back at a BOV request that it restate its confidence in them. “It doesn’t look like we’ll be able to do that by June,” says George Cohen, faculty senate chairman.
The AAUP was scathing in its assessment of the BOV and has recommended that the school’s accreditation feet get held to the fire so that matters can be resolved.
The national professors’ group diminished Dragas, owner of a construction firm in Hampton Roads, as out of her depth. She may know how to run a “successful, medium-sized enterprise” but she doesn’t have experience “with large complex organizations or the administration of higher education,” the AAUP writes.
The “headstrong” rector “imbued with a belief in ‘engaged trusteeship’ strove to remove a president who failed to conform to her image of academic captaincy,” says the AAUP, adding that Dragas didn’t really give Sullivan a chance to understand what the criticisms against her were.
The heart of the issue seems to be how the BOV is set up. As I have blogged before, it is unusually business-heavy, which is usually the way things are done in Virginia. The AAUP, an advocacy group for faculty, says a voting or non-voting faculty member should be added to the board and that board members should be better trained. Lots of other schools have something like this, notably Harvard.
In Virginia, there remains a Southern mentality that traces back to plantation days or to its older corporations where top-down authority is considered sacrosanct and mere “workers” really have no right to say anything. They are lucky to have a job. After all, Virginia’s elite loves to make note of its anti-union “right to work” laws designed to keep the rank and file in line.
A business-heavy BOV cannot but help perpetuate and extend this thinking which is only getting stronger as a camp that wants to privatize UVA keeps the pot bubbling.
Meanwhile, no one has really gotten to the bottom of what happened last year and why. There are unanswered questions about the influence of wealthy hedge fund managers who wielded influence their way. Also, why is U.S. Sen. Mark Warner so helpful to Dragas? Where does Gov. Robert F. McDonnell stand? We sure know where Ken Cuccinelli stands and he could be the next governor.
A danger is that U.Va., known for the diversity of its academic and research offerings, will get chopped back to a curriculum heavy on STEM (science, engineering, math and technology) which has been the fad among economic developers and the chattering business classes for the past few years. A couple of decades ago, it was all about “globalization” and reading Thomas Friedman’s books. Now we have to produce super engineers to keep up with the Chinese.
Problem is, since there are no real faculty members on the BOV, the business-oriented people are stuck reading the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal where the thinking tends to be a tad yesterday’s. This is apparently where Dragas and her cohorts somehow got the idea that UVa. was out of step with the online course craze.
One theory I’ve heard is that the business folks want to make sure that UVa. has researchers who are clearly in the corporate pocket, unlike Michael Mann, the former UVa climatologist who has become quite controversial with his ideas on mankind’s impact on climate change. They just don’t fly with conservatives who doubt global warming and want more corporate research money to flow.
Does someone have to pay the price? If so, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of even having a university?