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The University of Virginia: Why I still have faith in my alma mater

By Sam Ennis,

The author is a guest contributor and a 2006 graduate of the University of Virginia.

On June 10, former University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan abruptly announced her resignation pursuant to a vote of a quorum of the U-Va. Board of Visitors.  The Board’s ultimate motivation for ousting President Sullivan remains unclear, and students, faculty, and alumni alike have vehemently protested against what many believe was an unwarranted termination of the popular, progressive, and effective Sullivan.  

A series of opaque and non-responsive statements from Rector Helen Dragas, who by most accounts was instrumental in pushing to remove President Sullivan, have only further muddied these already cloudy waters.  As the national spotlight focuses on U-Va.’s internal strife, many predict dire consequences for the University in the form of lost donations, faculty resignation, and a drop in student admissions.             

Without a doubt, this is an ugly moment in our school’s history, and both students and faculty (past, present, and prospective) have just cause to worry about the transparency and accountability of the University’s governing bodies.  But I disagree with those who categorize this affair as U-Va.’s death knell as a premier university, or those who claim to have lost faith in the U-Va. altogether.

  As many commentators have recently suggested, this type of top-down internal politicking may be an indictment of the corporatization of academia, a consequence of U-Va.’s addiction to philanthropy, or symptomatic of a host of other structural ills in the American university system.  But, speaking as an alumnus, I did not choose to attend U-Va. for the board, or for the president; rather, I did so because I felt that the University was an environment in which I could develop personally, intellectually, and professionally. 

And it was. 

My U-Va. friends and classmates are now professors of classical history with Ivy League PhDs, campaigning for Scott Walker on behalf of Americans for Prosperity, designing roads for the city of Norfolk, clerking at the U.S. Patent Office, strategizing for the Democratic Party of Virginia, bartending in Charlottesville, and playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  We are of every race and ethnicity, every social strata and political viewpoint: and to the extent that we are not, we recognize our own segregation and shortcomings, and debate how we can do better.  At its core, this is the personal enrichment that I sought as a terrified First Year, reflected upon as a satisfied Fourth Year, and cherish as a nostalgic alumnus.  President Sullivan’s termination, while perhaps regrettable and poorly handled by the board, cannot rob me of these experiences, nor can it prevent the Class of 2016 from achieving the same self-discovery.

U-Va.’s current students will also find themselves challenged, as I did, by an outstanding faculty.  Our professors could teach anywhere in the world, and yet they choose to remain in Charlottesville because they believe in U-Va.’s mission and culture.  Their influence and guidance allowed me to teach English in France, do historical archiving in Mississippi, and enthusiastically bore my friends and family with my “insights” into the lives of ancient Athenian generals.

  The Faculty Senate’s passionate response to the current situation, and their continuing advocacy on behalf of their students and a healthy academic debate, proves that our professors have not changed in this regard in the six years since I’ve graduated.  Moving forward, U-Va. students both current and future will be shaped intellectually and professionally by a brilliant collection of mentors and teachers, friends and colleagues.

At U-Va., students are expected to adhere to an Honor Code that prohibits lying, cheating, and stealing.  The Code’s ultimate purpose is to establish a community of trust on Grounds in which students, faculty, and administration will know that their colleagues abide by the highest standards of personal and academic integrity.  Recently, the U-Va. Honor Committee issued a statement that while the board’s actions do not involve an act of lying, cheating, or stealing, the announcement and following justification have been unsettling to this community of trust.  And perhaps they have.  But my belief in U-Va. transcends a president or a board, and my experiences are representative of who we are as a University: diverse, flawed, interesting, pretentious, united, divided, and different.

Politics cannot take that away, and will not diminish the innate talents and intellectual curiosity of those who are fortunate enough to teach and learn at U-Va.  Wahoowa.

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