It's been an amazing couple of weeks at Mr. Jefferson's University.
The usual summer somnolence of the University of Virginia's historic Grounds was broken on the afternoon of June 10, when Helen Dragas, a Virginia Beach real estate developer and current Rector of the U-Va's governing Board of Visitors, announced that President Teresa Sullivan had resigned her post after a little less than two years on the jobs.
It soon became clear in the first days that Sullivan's "resignation" was more along the lines of a coup d’état. For months, Dragas and her faction, with the support of hedge fund billionaire and U-Va. mega-donor Paul Tudor Jones, worked behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for Sullivan's ouster. Made up mostly of businesspeople, this group had come to see Sullivan not "visionary" or bold enough for their tastes. Then, when they saw a moment to strike, they manipulated state laws and Board rules to force her out.
The University community, which had come to see Sullivan as strongly pro-faculty and gave her generally high marks for the changes she had implemented over her short tenure, reacted first with shock, then anger.
Not only had Sullivan been fired, by leaked documents obtained by the University's Cavalier Daily and other news outlets show that the opposition was looking for "strategic dynamism," a business buzzword that puts short-term initiatives ahead of incremental change. For U-Va, Ms. Dragas and her supporters were looking at radical changes to the financial structure of the various schools, potentially closing small department like German and Classics, and looking at implementing an online degree program.
While the ostensible focus of faculty and community action over the past 11 days has been winning Sullivan's reinstatement, many have come to see it as a fight for the soul of the University.
So the question is: who really has the power?
For days, it seemed that the Dragas faction was holding all the cards. These are millionaires and billionaires, politically connected, used to getting their own way, absorbed in the implacable logic of free-market capitalism, and oozing the rah-rah optimism of people who know they are right, know they are great, and rarely lose sleep over a decision once it has been made.
From their few self-justifying statements in the media, it's clear that the Dragasites seem the University as a thing. It's a canvas upon which the latest and greatest trends and fads can be projected. It's an entity that can be measured by the number of buildings or research centers big-money donors attach their names to or the size of its endowment fund.
But a university is not a thing. It is a community of scholars. A great professor is a great professor, whether they're sitting in a cushy office in a World Heritage building or a double-wide perched on the edge of a landfill. (Admittedly, most would prefer the cushy World Heritage option.) It's the faculty that draws students to a university and grant money into departmental coffers. The faculty raises the prestige of the whole community, giving big donors the confidence to attach their names to buildings and funds and research initiatives.
If you lose the faculty, you lose the community. The Dragasites have lost the faculty.
There's talk of a general faculty strike in the fall if all this is not resolved, but it's far more likely that this would turn into a war of attrition.
Dr. Sullivan, speaking before the Board of Visitors on Monday evening, noted that it was fortunate that recruiting season was over for the year. Next year, other universities will be swooping in to scoop up unhappy staffers with more than the usual vigor.
“The vultures are circling," political science professor David Leblang told the New York Times. "I’ve been contacted by three universities in the last three days. And I haven’t deleted the e-mails.”
Already the University was looking at the retirement of about half the tenured faculty over the next eight years. Some may decide on early retirement....or just leave. Professor William Wulf, who was awarded U-Va's first PhD in Computer Science in 1968, resigned from his post on Tuesday.
There is a glimmer that this particular Titanic may be able to squinch past the iceberg at the very last second.
Public pressure on the Board of Visitors and Governor Robert McDonnell is fierce. Donors and alumni are loudly snapping their wallets shut. Almost 3,000 turned out for a vigil on Monday and another rally is planned for Sunday. U-Va is making international news for all the wrong reasons.
The Washington Post is today reporting that Teresa Sullivan might be willing to withdraw her resignation, if Helen Dragas resigns or is not reappointed by the Governor when her term as Rector ends on July 1 and if the Board of Visitors agrees on some fundamental changes to its structure. There may be as many as eight votes on the Board to reverse track and keep Sullivan in office, and with the resignation of Vice Rector Mark Kingdon earlier this week, eight votes makes a majority. At least one unnamed source in the Governor's office says there is no way Helen Dragas will be reappointed.
If three members of the Board call for a meeting by 5 pm today, they could meet to vote for Sullivan's reinstatement as early as June 27.
What Would TJ Think?
Many people these last two weeks have said that Thomas Jefferson must just be spinning in his grave over this assault on his beloved University.
I don't think so. I think he's sitting up there at Monticello, looking down at the Rotunda and enjoying all this enormously.
Remember, this is a man who told the British king to go take a flying leap. The man who helped weave not only a new government, but a new form of government out of little more than words and moxie. The man who took on the mercenary pirates of the Barbary Coast because he didn't think it was right to pay the bribe and go about business as usual.
He won. Every time.
Heather Michon lives near Charlottesville, Virginia. She currently has 23 books checked out from the U-Va library.