Jefferson’s vision for the oversight of U-Va., where I’m a professor in the politics department, was clear. As he stated in his famous Rockfish Gap report of 1818, he wanted the university, and those charged with its governance, to have autonomy, but with the recognition that the ultimate authority “in all things, and at all times” lies with the government of the commonwealth of Virginia. Even today, the relevant statute reflects this position, with the Board of Visitors manual stating: “The rector and visitors of the University of Virginia shall be at all times subject to the control of the General Assembly.”
Of course, no state official wants to be in the position of running a university. For this reason, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) first resisted entering the fray, saying, “If a governor ever starts to micromanage boards . . . we will completely undermine our governing structure in higher education in Virginia.” But on Friday, he waded in, sending a letter to the board that invoked Jefferson’s love for the institution. It also warned that, if the board did not settle the university’s leadership crisis this coming week, McDonnell would ask all of its members to resign.
Good chief executives know the difference between micromanagement and leadership. If the institution is in trouble, it falls to the governor to assume responsibility. Jefferson would expect no less. He could be a vigorous executive, going so far as to tell newspaper editor John Colvin in 1810 that circumstances sometimes occur “which make it a duty in officers of high trust, to assume authorities beyond the law.” This was the basis on which Jefferson justified the Louisiana Purchase, an act that he doubted was constitutional but went ahead with anyway.
Jefferson also believed that governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed, a principle that the U-Va. Board of Visitors ignored in spirit by not offering any concrete reasons for removing Sullivan. Calling for “strategic dynamism” and saying that Sullivan lacked an “articulated, long-range plan” is scant justification for her dismissal — especially when she had presented such a plan to the board. In response to the initial disbelief that followed her ouster, the board instructed university officers to release a statement asserting that its action was “resolute and authoritative.”
Anytime someone feels the need to declare his or her authority, it is a sure sign that that power is slipping. (Remember Al Haig’s “I’m in control here” moment?) Consent does not come on command. Two weeks late and a dollar short, Dragas on Thursday finally conceded as much: “This University was entitled to a fuller explanation of the Board’s thinking.” What followed was a lengthy memo outlining many of the challenges the university faces, such as declining research funding, a deteriorating faculty-student ratio and the need for technological adaptations, though the memo did little to connect these issues directly to Sullivan’s brief tenure. The fact that one online course at Stanford University “enrolled an astounding 160,000 students” is interesting, but how does it relate to the educational experience of the average U-Va. student?