It appears that the conflict between Helen Dragas and Teresa Sullivan is far from over.
After all the brouhaha last summer between the head of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors and its president — a battle that got national attention and sparked lots of questions at universities around the country — not much appears to have been resolved.
Dragas engineered a coup against Sullivan last June only to be forced to reinstate her. Against plenty of opposition, Dragas herself was reinstated by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and then by the General Assembly this year.
It was probably naïve to expect peace “on Grounds” at the venerable school. Dragas recently presented a list of 65 goals for Sullivan (as if she needs help). The Association of American University Professors has bashed Dragas and the board in a report. Now the U-Va. faculty senate is pushing back on a Board of Visitors request that it restate its confidence in them. “It doesn’t look like we’ll be able to do that by June,” George Cohen, faculty senate chairman told The Post.
The AAUP was scathing in its assessment of the BOV and has recommended that the school’s accreditation feet get held to the fire so that matters can be resolved.
The national professors’ group diminished Dragas, owner of a construction firm in Hampton Roads, as out of her depth. She may know how to run a “successful, medium-sized enterprise” but doesn’t have experience “with large complex organizations or the administration of higher education,” the AAUP writes.
The “headstrong” rector “imbued with a belief in ‘engaged trusteeship’ strove to remove a president who failed to conform to her image of academic captaincy,” says the AAUP, adding that Dragas didn’t really give Sullivan a chance to understand what the criticisms against her were.
The heart of the issue seems to be how the BOV is set up. It is heavy with business people and short on individuals with a strong background in college administration, the arts, science or anything not mainstream. But that’s the way things are done in Virginia.
The AAUP, a national advocacy group for faculty, says that a voting or non-voting faculty member should be added to the board and that board members should be better trained. Other schools have more diverse top leadership, notably Harvard.
A business-heavy BOV cannot but help perpetuate a worldview that focuses mostly on what its members know — fund-raising and making sure that the university is in step with the cloncerns of the state’s economic elite. They are mindful that a number of powerful alumni and politicians want U-Va. to privatize so that it can be even more beholden to business interests and be free of the public education mission originally envisioned by Thomas Jefferson.
Meanwhile, no one has really gotten to the bottom of what happened last year and why. There are unanswered questions about the influence of wealthy hedge fund managers who wielded influence their way. Also, why is U.S. Sen. Mark Warner so helpful to Dragas? What will McDonnell do if the conflict worsens? Where would gubernatorial candidates Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe do if elected?
A danger is that the university, known for the diversity of its academic and research offerings, will get chopped back to a curriculum heavy on STEM (science, technology engineering and math), the fad among economic developers and the chattering business classes for the past few years.
Among the BOV’s worries was that U-Va. was falling behind in technology. Their narrow worry is keeping up with the Chinese. It should be educating men and women in the fullest sense.