The Dragas-Sullivan Battle at UVa Blazes On

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?

32 Responses to The Dragas-Sullivan Battle at UVa Blazes On

  1. Yup. As predicted

  2. “Meanwhile, no one has really gotten to the bottom of what happened last year and why.”.

    Exactly. Perhaps candidates Cuccinelli and McAuliffe should weigh in.

    When it comes to bashing Sullivan, I have to ask: Where’s the beef?

    Maybe Sullivan is doing a terrible job. If so, the problems need to be put into the public domain. Until they are – Sullivan deserves support.

  3. Where have you seen Sullivan bashing, ever? The only bashing has been directed at the BOV. Seeking a change of personnel is not equivalent to bashing. The Rector never bashed Sullivan, which is what seems to irritate everyone. Instead, we’ve heard 8 months of invective directed at the Rector. Meanwhile, the Board is busy trying to wrestle 18% tuition hikes for 3rd & 4th year students proposed by Sullivan’s administration. How’s that for a philosophical difference?

    • Lift: Thanks for sanity and good sense. This article plays like last years National Inquirer cover story – all smut and smoke, with no substance.

    • Lift:

      Suddenly firing someone less than half-way through her contract is bashing. The fact that the reasons for the dismissal were never aired is disgraceful. Even Torquemada officially accused his political enemies of heresy, sorcery or some other crime before burning them at the stake.

      Then, when a part time board provides a list of 65 goals to a full time president I’d say it’s bashing again. Would they also like Ms. Sullivan to ask permission and get a hall pass before going to the girls’ room?

      If it’s the tuition hikes that upset the board so much that they wanted to fire Sullivan, they should have said that.

      Lift, I graduated from UVA. Talk of “the university” can’t obscure an important fact – The University of Virginia is a public institution. It is the property of the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia. We elect a governor who appoints the Board of Visitors with General Assembly concurrence. There is a reason for all this public process. The people of Virginia deserve to know what the boards of our public universities are doing and why.

      And, yes – suddenly and semi-secretly firing a person in the middle of their employment contract is a form of bashing. Failing to explain that bashing to the owners of the institution (i.e. the people of Virginia) is another form of bashing. Finally, micro-managing a full time executive is yet another form of bashing.

      • DJ did a much better job than I in laying out the specifics and particulars. What is amazing to me is that anyone, least of the all the Gov, would see Ms. Dragas as an effective and credible leader after all of this.

        Even if Ms. Sullivan left, what would-be successor would want to occupy that position in that kind of environment?

        I would posit that the candidate who would want the spot would be an accomplished and capable political operative fully equipped to deal with and neuter the likes of Dragas – and you have to ask yourself – do you want someone to lead UVA whose modus operandi is that of a Dragas?

        The sole accomplishment of Ms. Dragas IMHO, is the hyper-politicization of the operation of a great University.

        don’t get me wrong – politics IS the way of the world but let’s assume that Dragas had been successful. what would have been the likely outcome was a successor that operated like Dragas did and agreed with her on the use of such tactics in operating the University?

        we don’t meet and compromise any more on a wide variety of things these days. The tactic now days for many is to decapitate the “enemy”, take over, and rule. To hell with governing.

  4. seeking a change of personnel – IN THE WAY that Dragas did it IS bashing IMHO.

    this was a back door attempted stabbing – not an up front confront the issue …

    keeping Dragas there after her underhanded way of dealing with the issue was guaranteed to continue to the bad blood. Why should anyone be surprised?

  5. I thought the way that Dragas sought to fire Sullivan was the kinder approach than a public firing. It is firmly on record that the super majority of the Board was in agreement.

  6. Reed,
    “The National Inquirer?” I am SOOO ashamed!

  7. You mean I beat the New York Times? That makes my Saturday!

  8. I don’t think this is limited to U.Va.

    The real question comes back to governance.

    And this is where I’m stumped. I agree that it’s a little unseemly to have BOV slots to the state’s universities basically given to politicos. That appears to be a recipe for disaster, and it finally blew up in C’ville.

    Yeah, having one faculty rep sounds nice, but if you’ve got 17 politicos and 1 faculty rep, do you really think that changes anything?

    I’d be interested in hearing others thoughts on how BOVs should be selected and if they have a better idea than the current practice of handing them out as candy to politicos.

    • re: how should they be selected.

      that’s a provocative question but a legitimate one in my view.

      perhaps one question is WHO should such a board answer to?

      and what performance standards should they be expected to meet?

      Most boards I would think, are expected at the least… to… “do no harm”.

      that’s a high standard but an appropriate one for the size and scope of the enterprise they are involved in managing…

  9. Actually, that is not the case here. This is an extremely strong and experienced board, in part, due to the blowup last summer. Despite reports to contrary, this university it now very well run by any objective standard.

  10. I think we should IPO all the colleges. Let Wall street figure it out.

    • Oh, b0y. I wish this were a joke. I read this morning that Defense Department is now proposing that Wall street securitize the US Navy’s long term purchase of solar and wind power energy for its defense critical installations – places like China Lake.

      Talk about building one risky scheme atop another for our natural defense of all things. If we can do this, surely then there is no reason why we can’t do it for education, given our success with below prime home mortgages. Securitize our Navy’s energy sources built on unreliable wind and solar, along with our children’s education then we sell the debt to the Chinese.

      That way China need not go to war with us. It can just buy back the USA at it’s own foreclosure auction.

  11. I agree this is an extremely strong board. The New York Times article is an excellent account of what is happening all over the country. This board and rector getting the blame for it is ludicrous and if Sullivan and her administration are asking for an 18 percent tuition increase, I get the desire to dismiss her entirely. And my guess is that the board is bound by law not to lay out the reasons they sought to dismiss the president. And at this point, it would be very counterproductive as well.

    • Uvafieldstone. You raise an excellent point. Can you imagine if the Board had listed reasons why it removed Sullivan. Imagine the uproar! How dare the BOV divulge the very information the professors now demand!

      What a cheap political stunt this is. Read the Association of Professors Report. Talk about painting yourself as petty, parochial, small minded and naive. The UVa. professors should be embarrassed. Instead they quote the accreditors, those virtuous governors of quality higher education.

      • If you want to remove a College President, you owe the public the reason. Otherwise, it starts to sound a lot of a secret inquisition.

        If Sullivan is so bad she needs to be removed – in the opinion of the BOV, they should have the backbone and integrity to be honest about their actions.

        this is not going to get solved – like this – that’s clear. Sullivan and the faculty are not going to go away. This is just going to fester and become even more dysfunctional. What we have is a BOV that is not strong but weak and unable to sustain their own actions.

        If you want to do what the BOV did – you have to stand tall for what you believe – or come across as feckless and unprincipled.

        just my 2 cents as usual – no respect for the BOV – none.

  12. Oh I don’t know. If there’s two things China Lake has, it’s hot air and sun. The real question is why we even need a China Lake any more in a joint military, tight money world.

    • Better check Norfolk, Newport News & Hampton Roads Naval Shipyards too. Way we’re headed, those folks will be powered by securatized sunshine too.

  13. Why? We have at least two nuclear reactors sitting idle at a Norfolk pier. Just hook them up to the power grid and DoD is saving millions in energy costs. Or they could actually make money by selling the juice to the city.

    :(

  14. Great idea, these days we can buy both subs cheap on credit then have Wall Street securitize shares in ‘em with a Fannie Mae Wrap Around Guarantee, and make a bundle selling power back to the Navy there in your home town. With enough left over for lights from Va. Beach to Yorktown likely.

  15. what’s this – a billion dollar additional spending for missile defense in California?

    wow!

    that’s liable to blow out that solar stuff big time, eh?

  16. re: governance of a University. what kind of experience should the members of a BOV in order to carry out that mission in a competent way?

    serious question.

    can you/should you run a UVA like you would a business ?

    that’s an honest question.

    we have no shortage of folks who comment here who have serious issues with the costs of higher Ed, the higher than average inflation of tuition and related, the “more more money” the Universities keep advocating from the Va GA.

    Where I think Dragas went wrong.

    She wants the University to be more cost-effective and more connected to the needs of the modern world – I think.

    How would you go about promoting this … fairly revolutionary concept – to a University perceived to be moribund and aloof to things like this?

    What is the performance standard for achieving such an evolutionary change?

    well.. the most obvious one is that you accomplish progress instead of chaos and hate and loathing… polarization of the players.. and in general get heels dug in rather than accepting and assisting the change….

    UVA is not going to change overnight. It’s going to be a long slog but it can and should change…

    but it will take a smarter more capable change agent than Dragas who strikes me as more warrior-like than collaborator and facilitator.

    Good intentions don’t count for horse puckey if in the end – you not only fail in their goal but you tip over the whole apple cart – inject instability and chaos into the governance process.

    The people who are most successful at evolutionary change – are the ones you never hear about…

    sometimes you can’t get change without blood on the floor… but is this
    the only way for UVA? Is Dragas the kind of change agent that is needed to get the job done?

    serious question. I’m all for second chances – people who get good, get there by failing and trying again.

    If you were Sullivan would you ever trust Dragas again? How about the faculty?

  17. I still say you are too hard on Dragas. Listen carefully when she speaks. Very impressive. She looks for accountability and good sense. And I venture to say that the way she sought to dismiss Sullivan is really standard procedure for dismissing a president and Sullivan’s track record was unimpressive to say the least. Sullivan is over her head in my opinion. I’m sure she’s a very good sociology professor…

    • This matter has been decided. Dragas stays, Sullivan stays. It’s finished. Those who now criticize either over last summers events harm the University for no good end. It’s a cheap political stunt they play. Either that, or it’s activility akin to old fashioned small town gossip that never dies.

      • actually there is a real thing called “bad blood” and it does affect relationships and problem solving. Reed, it’s _not_ small-town gossip guy when the NYT is writing about it.

  18. My view of Dragas is that she is an excellent business woman and very thoughtful and logical and has the best interests of UVA in her heart but she denigrates the President and Faculty as mere “employees” that “need” to be changed or dismissed to deal with a changing modern world.

    BUT – the challenge is to turn that ship and that’s no small feat and not a done deal even for folks who have world-class change agent skills and a track record of successful ventures. It’s a rare set of skills not easily found.

    It’s not easy to turn a company around but with a company one has the ability to get rid of those who won’t change. With a University and/or other kinds of institutions that have tenured personnel, it’s harder and requires a different approach and more patience and more innovation and significant people skills where people may well like you even if they don’t like your basic mission. But if they dislike your mission and also you as a person they do not like nor trust – you’re in a bad spot.

    I believe in second chances as I said before and that’s indeed how many great people – got better and better, but once an atmosphere is poisoned to the degree it appears that UVA has been, I question whether even a really, really good and skilled person can still accomplish the things that need to happen as the most potent tool a corporate change agent has is the ability to just get rid of those who won’t change and whom see you as a destructive enemy, i.e. a “corporate raider” rather than a “Steve Jobs” obnoxious and arrogant but pure in his duty and righteous in his mission.

    The one thing I will admit is that news reports are seldom reality and often just plain misrepresentative and the NYT piece did add important perspective to the context – i.e. UVA is not alone in this and the whole world of education is now changing at light speed and it may well be the case that if UVA does not change and change quickly that it will not only get overtaken but much worse things will happen to it AND to it’s soul and in that sense, Dragas sees her role as a fireman and not a church pastor preaching the gospel.

    there…. is that any better?

    ;-)

    still I wonder if she has not shot her wad as they say.

  19. Very fair and thoughtful response. I agree with all you say. I, personally, am looking forward watching Dragas. I’m impressed with her tenacity and I think she has some very good ideas that will work if she can get the administration and the president past the drama.

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