It seems extraordinarily odd that the best public university in the region is under the gun and may face sanctions from an accreditation agency for a bizarre, shoot-in-the-foot situation last summer.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commissions on Colleges wants more answers about the forced resignation and then reinstatement of Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia in June. The commission isn’t satisfied with the answers it has received and is concerned about “integrity issues with governing board authority,” according to a Post editorial.
With all the hue and cry these days about the cost and future of higher education, you just can’t have some Board of Visitors running around pulling the trigger on the highly competent school president they had just hired the year before without having a reason.
That’s exactly what the BOV, led by Helen Dragas, a construction firm owner, did. Dragas cited an “existential crisis” that she and other board members conjured up, erroneously, that involved the school’s supposed lack of progress in jumping on the online-course bandwagon.
They cited concerns about Virginia slipping in academic quality, but had they bothered to check, they would have learned Sullivan had the same concerns and was taking action.
Behind the scenes was another dynamic – that of “privatizing” the University of Virginia and perhaps the College of William and Mary as well. “Privatizing” things is very popular these days in the Old Dominion. It is happening with public services, toll roads and now even the huge Virginia Port Authority that operates one of the largest port complexes in the country. The concept seems to go down well with both Republicans and Democrats.
It will be interesting to see what the Board of Visitors and the school tell the commission. My takeaway comes in two points:
The first if that the BOV’s action was very “Virginian.” Despite the state’s role as the cradle of American democracy, real power has been often the province of a small and self-entitled elite. This goes back to the days when plantation owners and later Sen. Harry F. Byrd gamed the state’s political system to keep it to as few players as possible. This holdover concept could be why elections for governor are held in off years and voters aren’t exactly encouraged to vote. Yet Virginia has more recently become far too modern and diverse for this thinking to remain relevant.
My second takeaway is that when pressed too far, Virginians can revolt. This happened in the American Revolution and, sadly, in the Civil War. At U-Va., the rising up against the Board of Visitors in support of Sullivan was both breathtaking and reassuring. If the kids on the Lawn backing Sullivan are our future, maybe we shouldn’t be so worried.
The commission deserves answers. The board must provide them. It can’t continue operating in a bubble of self-importance. The institution is bigger than they are.