Power grabs are nasty, brutish, and quick.
They’re intended to overwhelm and surprise the victims. To cause confusion. To frustrate your enemies’ abilities to mount counterattacks.
What we’ve been watching unfold at the University of Virginia during the last two weeks is a nothing less than a coup, carefully planned and staged when nobody was in town and when nobody was watching.
I have no original reporting to add, and I think Timothy Burke nailed it in his post about the incredible ham-handedness of the Board of Visitors as a horde of micro-managers who are either treating UVA in a way they’d never treat their own private businesses, or who are so inept that they’re walking proof that wealth is mainly based on luck in marriage and genetics.
What’s striking to me is how familiar this should be to historians. We’ve seen appointments of ‘midnight judges,’ a Saturday night massacre, a night of the long knives. We’ve seen Bush-Gore, Hayes-Tilden, Adams-Jefferson.
When he learned that UVA Rector Helen Dragas – a real estate executive – had gone to UVA’s President Teresa Sullivan on the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend to tell her that 8 of the 15 members of the university’s board were prepared to demand her resignation, a friend of mine thought it couldn’t have been true. Eight of fifteen was “bare majority” and “nobody” would run a university like that. It was too divisive. It flew in the face of everything a liberal education was supposed to stand for at Thomas Jefferson’s school.
Yet some people do operate that way; some just did.
We’re not used to thinking that the bare-knuckle power plays which are routine in politics, corporate boardrooms, and statecraft could be so portable. It’s shocking to think that one rector, weeks before the expiration of her term, would do something like this. Sullivan was in her second year, and by press accounts, Dragas and several members of the university’s business school community began working on what they called the “project” to have her fired. Who knows if Sullivan suspected that Dragas was telephoning board members individually, holding meetings to dodge open records laws and evade other board members who would expose her sleazy m.o. Dragas timed the meeting with Sullivan to coincide with the holiday weekend, after students had left town, when many faculty were away and several big money donors on the board were either overseas or – in one case – recuperating from surgery. To this day, she has offered no clear account of why Sullivan was removed. No specific complaints, no particular flaws or faults. Nothing.
There was a protest on the university’s famed Lawn yesterday. The faculty senate had a meeting with Dragas at which she gave no clear explanation for Sullivan’s removal. They held an overwhelming ‘no confidence’ vote in Dragas soon after.
What’s interesting to me is that Dragas doesn’t care. Just look at this portion of the statement she issued late in the day yesterday:
We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this University. For that reason, let me state clearly and unequivocally: you – our U.VA. family – deserved better from this Board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.
In case you’re not fluent in Bullshit, that statement is what it looks like when you extend your middle digit in the direction of your iPhone and ask Siri to transcribe it. Dragas has no intention of explaining her reasons. It doesn’t matter to her whether we, or the students, or the faculty, or the alums, or the other members of the Board don’t know why this was hatched.
We’ve been lulled into thinking that a university operates on a consensus model, and maybe we’re about to witness why it should. But my hunch is that trustees will learn from this. Dragas acts like this because she can, and as long as she can, she will. It doesn’t matter to her whether the faculty senate is upset, because right now the faculty senate seems to have no legal standing to do much of anything except pass resolutions with no binding authority or quit their posts.
We like to think that we can rely on the good intentions of board members whose ostensible and historical role has been to serve as caretakers. But we are ill-equipped to deal with a board that goes rogue. By some media accounts, Dragas and her cabal want UVA to start closing departments and to begin shifting 1st- and 2nd-year instruction to an online format. Why? Because several of her conspirators are invested in an online education provider and want that company to be given a preferential role in transforming UVA’s curriculum.
If you wanted to have a discussion about the goals of online ed or the structure of departments, you’d have that conversation with people who work in academia. But if you wanted to just grab some revenue streams for your pals, this is how you’d do it, because at the end of the day you don’t really care about the content or the consequence for the faculty, students, or university – you only care about the money pipeline.
I keep hoping that some rich member of the UVA Board of Visitors is going to step forward and publicly call for Dragas to resign and for Sullivan to be reinstated.
But that hasn’t happened, and even if it did, it would only paper over the enormous problem that’s been exposed during the last two weeks:
Faculty governance institutions, as they are currently constituted, are far too weak to stand up to board members who see the university as an oil deposit or a copper vein. I suspect that Dragas’ enemies on the board know they’ve been beaten. I hope that the smarter ones among them are taking the time to learn the ins and outs of the university’s rulebooks and the Virginia statutes concerning higher ed. I hope the Faculty Senate is lawyering up for a fight.
Remember how we used to wonder how we were going to answer the argument that the university should be run like a corporation?
It turns out that you can just skip over the conversation part.
If this can happen at UVA – and, let’s just say it – IT DID – we should all feel the fierce urgency of now. We’re not used to thinking of ourselves collectively – in practice, many of us are Mugwumps and anti-Federalists – but we’d better start.
The people coming after our institutions, our students, and our jobs are organized, committed, and highly motivated. The rules matter, and if we’re going to survive as a profession, we’d better learn how to play hardball and start figuring out ways to make it impossible for future Helen Dragases to unravel 200 years of traditions in service of a crassly self-interested self-enrichment scheme.