By Peter Galuszka

The sad demise of Teresa Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia poses many questions regarding what happened to her and how and why the Board of Visitors did what it did.

Given the board’s lack of transparency and non-communicative nature at this prestigious, public university, much opinion and supposition have come out in the outraged reaction among faculty, students and alumni, who, on Friday, responded so vehemently to the firing of the highly-regarded Sullivan that some of the school’s email servers shut down due to overload.

Among the debates are how the closed-door politics worked, who the players are and whether there is some great futuristic “lesson” or “strategic plan” that can be construed about the school and all of American collegedom from this. This latter tidbit comes from those who always are trying to squeeze the Big Thoughts out of everything, often to prop up on of their pet theories about the “crisis” in highly education, the need for “technology” and “efficiency” and so on.

In reality, however, Virginia has been though a slew of college firings or near firings and they were typically based on political philosophy or management style. Not one was canned because of the “Big Thoughts.” Consider:

  • Gene Nichols, a prominent lawyer, became president of the College of William and Mary in 2005. Although popular with students, he was a magnet for the wrath of W&M’s conservative alumni. The NCAA forced the school to tone down its Native-American-style logo, Nichols ordered a crucifix used at the Wren Building Chapel to be put away and brought out only during Christian services and allowed a “sex workers show” to be displayed. Among the wrath incurred was that of Jim McGlothlin, a wealth alumnus and coal baron who was so miffed at Nichols, he withheld a $12 million donation. Money talks. Nichols was soon gone.
  • Michael Rao was recruited by the BOV at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2009. Rao had had a lackluster academic career and but had been president of Central Michigan University for nearly a decade and was deemed to have strong administrative skills. VCU had just been through two decades of Eugene Trani, a powerhouse who built out VCU into Richmond’s inner city neighborhoods. Rao’s goal was to improve the academics taught in the new buildings Trani built. But Rao ran into trouble a year later when it was learned he forced his staff to sign bizarre “confidentiality” agreements and allowed his wife to get involved in management, including getting rid of his chief of staff. The BOV decided to keep Rao. They boosted and extended his contract. The fact that VCU’s unlikely basketball team reached national prominence and the Final Four in 2011 helped.
  • William J. Frawley lasted only 10 months at the University of Mary Washington in 2010. Two arrests for DUI within two days of each other did him in.

So, the Boomergeddons and Blog Heads can wax eloquent until the cursors come home about the “Vision” of Virginia’s public universities and how we all need to get with the on-line craze, but the fact is that many of the incidents result from human failings or, in the case of Nichols, a BOV without the balls to blunt an arch-conservative and rich alumni donator.

The following could very well sun of the case at U.Va. It comes from a commenter from a blog posting I had on The Washington Post:

“From my perspective, it is very, very difficult to promote change at UVa… *any* kind of change. Frankly, at times it feels that the whole institution is holding vigil at the grave of Thomas Jefferson, obediently awaiting his leadership. This attitude, coupled with the bowtied “ivy” pretense, constrains the institution in such a way that it is not nearly as wired for creative program growth… nor endowment growth… as one might think.  

 And all of that despite an immensely wealthy alumni base which truly *wants* to help. “

’nuff said.

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  1. jlanderson Avatar

    Peter and everyone else:

    I think the full story — or at least, the fullest version today — has finally emerged with the following stories on various news websites.

    1. The Hook, in Charlottesville, is reporting now that former President John Casteen has been leading the faculty’s fight against the Board of Visitors’ actions, “stiffening their spines” in advance of Monday’s BofV meeting:

    2. It’s now pretty much confirmed that Paul Tudor Jones, a billionaire hedge fund investor, UVa alum and name-designee contributor to the John Paul Jones Arena, is the “big alum” Peter Kiernan, late of the Darden Foundation, alluded to in his now-infamous email. Jones reported dangled a $100 million check to the University, setting as price the ouster of President Sullivan. Jones has authored an op/ed in today’s Daily Progress in which he comes out in support of her ouster, though the “facts” he cites are somewhat dubious and skewed to support his thesis.

    3. And I include this link simply because, in my opinion, it puts to the lie the statements by Rector Helen Dragas and now Paul Tudor Jones that President Sullivan didn’t see problems at the University that needed to be addressed. This detailed memo she prepared for Dragas early last month identifies many of the same problems Dragas cited — on her own, as she would have us believe — that led her to the conclusion Sullivan had to go.

    I, at least, can now say that I think this is the story: A rich (and therefore powerful) donor and the rector think they know more about higher ed than the professionals hired to run the University. Couple that with a personality clash between the president and the rector, it’s fairly certain egos and big-time money did in President Sullivan.

    And I’m disgusted by it all. I’ve said all along, I have no basis to judge President Sullivan’s effectiveness (or lack thereof), but am angry and outraged by the underhanded process by which Dragas and the Visitors engineered Sullivan’s ouster. The damage they are inflicting upon the University is incalculable.

  2. The “online craze”?

    Do you think online education is a passing fad like slinkies and hula hoops?

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Yeah, come to think of it, online education is sort of like slinkies or hula hoops. It’s just another Gutenberg press or telephone or desktop computer. It will pass.

    You are missing the point (as usual). The point is the MESSAGE, not the MEDIUM.

    1. jlanderson Avatar

      Here, here.

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