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Posted at 02:23 PM ET, 06/19/2012

The U-Va. mess: Sign of the (bad) times

Correction: A previous version used the wrong name in relation to Helen Dragas’ effort to remove Teresa Sullivan. It is now correct.

The debacle at the University of Virginia over the secretive ousting of the school’s first female president is more than a tale about how one school’s governing board can blunder. It is a sign of these unfortunate times in public education at all levels.

The actions of the governing board of the elite public university in forcing out popular President Teresa Sullivan reflect the way school
U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan speaks to the crowd on Monday with husband Douglas Laycock, right, looking on. (Mark Gormus/AP)
reform at all levels has been carried out in recent years in some important ways.

Here are some key phrases that describe the episode: Acting in secrecy. Ignoring teachers. Viewing public education as a business. Refusing to admit a mistake.

Who does that sound like? (Answer: Modern K-12 school reformers.)

Let’s review:

The head of the governing board, Helen Dragas, a fiscally conservative developer from Virginia Beach, worked for months in secret on a campaign to fire Sullivan.

She kept the faculty — who, along with the students, are the heart of any school — ignorant of her plans, and when the news became public and professors demanded an explanation, she didn’t give it to them.

Reporters ferreted out from people involved in the drama that Dragas had never quite trusted Sullivan from the start of her tenure, and that she didn’t think she was a bold, strategic leader who could make tough cuts at the university in these troubled financial times.

My colleagues Daniel de Vise and Anita Kumar also reported discrepancies in statements made by Dragas, including about the number of board members who knew about, and agreed with, the Dragas-led ouster of Sullivan.

She had suggested that the decision among the 16 members of the Board of Visitors was unanimous, when it turned out that in fact some members didn’t even know she had wanted to get rid of Sullivan. In fact, they reported that the board never met or took a vote on Sullivan’s ouster.

Then, as donors threatened to withhold money from the university, the students and faculty demanded answers and even the esteemed former president, John Casteen III, said it was time for the board to explain itself, Dragas put out a statement.

What did she do? She apologized for the ouster was handled, but not for the decision to remove Sullivan.

“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.”

The faculty wasn’t satisfied and asked Dragas, the rector of the Board of Visitors, and Vice Rector Mark J. Kington to resign.

And now the board has appointed an interim president, who will take over on Aug. 16, the day after Sullivan officially leaves. After a number of top candidates said they didn’t want the job, the board appointed as interim president Carl P. Zeithaml, dean of U-Va.’s highly regarded McIntire School of Commerce.

Let’s look at some of the similarities between this episode and the K-12 school reform process of recent years.

Many of the efforts to get state legislatures to pass reform packages that include the reduction or elimination of teacher tenure, evaluation systems that link teachers’ jobs to student test scores, and more, have been done in secret. For example, a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an organization of nearly 2,000 conservative state legislators, worked in secret for years to promote privatization and corporate interests in education and other areas of American society.

At the center of the modern school reform movement is the philosophy that public schools should be treated not as civic institutions but rather as corporate entities. That the interim leader is Zeithaml, whose speciality is in the field of “strategic management” speaks volumes about the direction the board wants the school to go.

Another central characteristic of school reform is the role of teachers: They don’t have one, at least when it comes to making decisions. Teachers have been scapegoated for many of the problems facing public schools, and their voice has been ignored in the education policy debate.

Throughout the reform era, reform leaders, such as Michelle Rhee, rarely (if ever) admit they make a mistake and make major decisions without the benefit of research backing up their action.

As telling as anything is the fact that Dragas, my colleagues reported, hired the public relations firm Hill+Knowlton to help the school ride out the mess she helped make.

The University of Virginia, long one of the most highly ranked public schools in the country, is going to need more than good public relations to fix this mess and maintain its place in higher education.

It is going to need somebody to start making some smart decisions.

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By  |  02:23 PM ET, 06/19/2012

 
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