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.

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  1. Neil Haner Avatar
    Neil Haner

    What’s most likely is the Governor won’t reappoint her this month. I don’t know what the timetable is for replacing an old BOV member with a newly appointed one, what the confirmation requirements are (maybe someone in the know can enlighten me?) But regardless, McDonnell is smart enough to realize she’s toxic, and for now she’s Kaine’s fault, not his. He’s not going to lay his own claim to her mismanagement.

    If she’s going to resign, she’ll do it after the Governor has made that announcement. She seems far too proud to serve out as a lame duck.

    Contrasting that, I’m really crossing my fingers Sullivan isn’t too proud to come back to a University that 99% supports her, even if there were a couple knuckleheads formerly at the top.

  2. jlanderson Avatar

    Peter, according to the WaPo’s Anita Kumar in today’s paper, Sullivan supporters on the BofV are working to round up the eight votes needed to rescind all this silliness. I would think they’re being led by former Rector Heywood Frailin, of Roanoke.

    Kumar, by the way, is a UVa alum who got her start in journalism at The Cavalier Daily, which first FOI’d the emails.

    Up until now, I’ve been ambivalent about Sullivan’s tenure and whether she should be reinstated … not because I have anything against her but because I have no direct, first-hand knowledge of her performance on Grounds.

    The events of the past couple of days, however, have led me to the conclusion that she MUST be reinstated for this palace coup d’etat to be 100-percent turned back.

    One of the most disturbing things from Dean Z’s news conference Wednesday was the little-noticed revelation that Dragas twice asked him to consider the presidency full-time, following her June 10 email letter of the “resignation.”

    That the Rector alone would be offering the presidency of the University of Virginia to someone, no matter how eminently qualified that person may be, is astonishing. No search committee, no outside professional firm to evaluate the candidates, no interviews by the full BofV … just on the Rector’s whim.

    But then again, that’s exactly how we’ve see the Rector act throughout this entire sordid affair.

  3. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Is it true that the Dragas & Crew proposed dropping UVA’s Department of Classics, for lack of profitability. If so its akin to proposing the we dig up and toss out the foundation of our Civilization, the cornerstone of any great university worthy of the name. Without the Classics and their rigorous study, there could never have been a Declaration of Independence, said no less that Thomas Jefferson. Nor could there have been a Thom. Jefferson.

    If true, that proposal alone is sufficient grounds to demand turning out those on the board that endorsed it.

  4. You’ve probably already seen this. But I had to post it anyway. The reputation has already been harmed.

  5. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    No, I had not seen that piece in Crooked Timber. It’s quite wonderful. Ken, thanks for suggesting it.

  6. Virginia has been at the forefront of digital humanities for years through innovations in its library and million-dollar grants from the Mellon foundation. It has offered distance-degrees for years as well. I don’t think some Board members were sufficiently aware of what has been going on.

  7. DJRippert Avatar

    The UVA BoV now says it did “the right thing the wrong way”. I think that’s entirely possible.

    Random calls to “reinstate Sullivan now” without having all the facts on the table are as wrong-headed as the palace coup which ousted Ms. Sullivan.

    Dragas, no doubt aided by a pricey PR machine, is now making clear statements about half the time. Here is one that can be understood:

    “Yet in the face of these challenges, the University still lacks an updated strategic plan,” she wrote. “We deserve better – the rapid development of a plan that includes goals, costs, sources of funds, timelines and individual accountability.”.

    So, we finally have an almost articulate statement of the problem from Dragas’ side. What is Sullivan’s response?

    Moreover, what is the response from The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond? Their appointed BoV claims that UVA lacks a usable strategic plan. Is that true? Is UVA facing a so-called existential crisis?

    The stench from our state legislature in Richmond is overwhelming. While the BoV members are appointed by the governor, they are confirmed by the General Assembly. So, where is McDonnell? Where is our State Secretary of Education – Laura Fornash? Where are the 22 delegates on the House of Delegates Education Committee? Where are the 15 state senators on the Senate Education and Health Committee?

    The members of the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond are taking one of three approaches:

    1. Declaring their love of “independent BoVs”. This is even more disingenuous than usual for the Clown Show. For a politically independent board, the BoV members seem to have a very high interest in making political donations. They are also appointed by the governor and confirmed by the General Assembly. Finally, there are 39 members of the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond that overtly claim to be engaged in overseeing higher education in Virginia. If the BoVs are politically independent, why have (for example) a state Secretary of Education?

    Here is what the official web site for the Secretary of Education claims:

    “The Education Secretariat provides guidance to the 16 public universities, the Virginia Community College System, five higher education and research centers, the Department of Education, the state-supported museums.”.

    Independent BoVs my ass.

    2. Make mindless, politically incendiary comments. A few Democrats within the Clown Show have joined the undisciplined debate of the blogosphere by railing at the BoV decision. I have yet to read one of these “enlightened” comments that address UVA’s strategi plan or answer the question of whether UVA faces an “existential crisis”. Had there been a Democratic governor in place, the same useless squealing would be coming from the Republican members of the Clown Show.

    3. See no evil. Speak no evil. The preponderence of Clown Show reaction has been the usual silence. Let’s face it – the people in the Clown Show overtly charged with overseeing higher education have no earthly idea what’s going on at UVA. They should know. They should have UVA’s strategic plan firmly in mind. But they don’t know. Therefore, they have nothing to say.

  8. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Perhaps this is premature to say, but at this point I cannot imagine that Dr. Sullivan will not be reinstated. If that occurs, the critical question then is what happens thereafter. Already there are many worrisome signs. The Trashing of Carl Zeithaml, for example; or the casting of events as a clash of Scholarship Ethics versus Business Ethics; or the effort to launch an investigation into the board – this efforts to further politicize, stereotype, or engage in a culture war should be strongly resisted. Serious people have serious work to do. All parties, most importantly perhaps the faculty at this point, are soon going to be put to an important test. That of acting as responsible adults. Hopefully, under the leadership and example of Dr. Sullivan and many others, all constituents of the University will work cooperatively together to do what best for a great university, and not allow that noble goal to be hijacked by any special interests, or viewpoints.

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