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.

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  1. “You hear a lot of this drivel on this blog … [universities are] run by a cabal of irresponsible, free-spending professors whose world view was shaped by hated 1960s activism.”

    Oh, really? I don’t recall ever seeing such a sentiment expressed on this blog. Is that just you projecting your inner fear and angst upon those who disagree with you? Perhaps your defense of the status quo is motivated (consciously or subconsciously) by a desire to insulate the aforesaid activist professors from change.

  2. “As far as paying coddled professors too much…”

    Who said professors are paid too much? Just one citation, please. I’ve never objected to teachers’ pay scales. What I have said is that professors’ teaching productivity in some departments is extraordinarily low.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Bacon, Bacon, Bacon,
    You have alluded many times to the mindset of hated professors in many tomes be they about Michael Mann or wasteful grants or whatever. When you criticize professors productivity and whatever it is you view as their “efficiency” and you complain loudly about tuititions “going through the roof” somewhere in there is a statement, implied or otherwise, about how much you are paying professors.
    As far as Rector Dragas, see this quote:

    “James A. Bacon

    University of Virginia Rector Helen E. Dragas gets it. Explaining the Board of Visitors’ differences with departing President Teresa Sullivan, she told university deans and vice presidents that Virginia’s flagship educational institution can not continue to conduct business as usual”

    So, Jim, you have two choices. You can go back to your posts and highlight and delete parts. Or, you can lock me out of the blog. I was locked out all day yesterday. Wonder why? Any ideas?

  4. DJRippert Avatar


    Let’s not go too far with the Helen Dragas “corporate” argument. Ms Dragas is the CEO of the company her father started. She may be a talented businesswoman or she may have just gotten lucky in the great parental lotto.

    It seems the bigger story should be how she became a member of the Board of Visitors at all, let alone Rector of that board.

    She was appointed by the governor and confirmed by the General Assembly. Where is the governor who appointed her and/or members of the General Assembly who confirmed her now? Where are they in defending their choice? Of course, they are nowhere to be found. Accountability doesn’t exist in Virginia and the reason is the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond and its apologists in the media (including some on this blog).

    The premier public university in Virginia is facing an “existential crisis” according to the person selected by the former governor and confirmed by the General Assembly to be on the Board of Visitors. Yet, none of those very politicians who appointed Ms. Dragas to her position has anything to say about this “existential crisis”.

    Richmond is the problem.

    Note to Jim Bacon: When I say “Richmond is the problem” I refer to the state politicians in Richmond, not the citizens of that city. Kind of like when you conservatives say, “Washington is the problem”.

  5. DJRippert Avatar


    “UVA is one of the world’s greatest universities.”.

    Ms. Sullivan is going a bit over the top here. On what basis does she make that statement?

    Here is a world ranking:

    UVA is #126.

    Certainly not bad but pretty far down the list to be declared “one of the world’s greatest universities”. No?

    In my opinion, the University of Virginia has been living on its past glory for a long time. Ms. Sullivan may well deserve to still be in charge but there also needs to be some serious soul searching regarding what UVA’s goals, where it really stands and how it can improve. Simply speaking in terms of “The University” or “Mr Jefferson’s University” does a disservice to everybody involved.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Tim Kaine appointed Dragas since she was a big time Democratic fundraiser. Kaine hasn’t answered for squat. He should. The other co-conspirator was a partner with Mark Warner at Columbia Capital. Another Dem. What has Warner said about this? Don’t now. Hasn’t said.
    Unfortunately, this laud of “corporate methods” crosses both parties. It is so such much bullshit, given the performance of U.S. companies in the past 30 years and how their CEOs make 42 times or more what they did in the 1970s. Are they 42 times better?
    Step One in withdrawing from this downturn is to give up and swear off these bogus corporate models. Sullivan is right. The top down corporate thing doesn’t work in higher education. It doesn’t work in medicine and health care, either. More on that later.

  7. saunders Avatar

    I want to thank both of you – it is helpful to everyone to remember that there are often two reasonable points of view and to consider both. While I stick more on the side of the masses and Dr. Sullivan in this case, the damage has been done. The important thing now is what can be done to fix it. The BOV has appointed the Dean of the Commerce school as an Interim President. He will be seen as a tool and will have great difficulty gaining trust from a number of constituencies. However were Rector Dragas and the Vice Rector to resign perhaps the Interim President would have a chance. It would also give Ms. Dragas a chance to show that she values the good of The University over her own ego. As I expect this is not true, I do not expect it to happen. But I still hope.

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