What would Thomas Jefferson think of the U-Va. turmoil?

Whenever there is a controversy at the University of Virginia — such as the current one over the abrupt removal of president Teresa Sullivan — the natural reflex is to ask: What would the school’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, think?

That question is particularly apt in this case because Jefferson had specific ideas about how the university, which he started in 1819, would be governed. And, as head of the first board governing the school, he held in effect the same position as Rector Helen E. Dragas, who has led the effort to oust Sullivan. But the similarities stop there.

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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?

Jefferson understood the difference between formal and real authority. The former is the possession of a title, such as “interim president.” On the basis of formal authority, the board has tried to move ahead and resume oversight of the university’s operational business. But even the school’s interim leader, Carl P. Zeithaml, has acknowledged that he lacks any real power. In a statement Friday, Zeithaml said he was suspending any activities associated with his new role, because “trust cannot be restored in our community until President Sullivan’s status is clarified and ultimately resolved.”

Real authority, the kind that matters most, is measured in peoples’ willingness to accept the legitimacy of those in power. If the alumni stop giving moral and financial support to the university, if the faculty continues to resist, if students do not fall in line, then formal authority is almost helpless.

At the moment, much of the real authority on campus appears to have swung to faculty leaders such as David Leblang, chairman of the politics department, and George Cohen, a law professor and president of the Faculty Senate. Cohen has emerged as the faculty’s primary spokesman, a thoughtful, calm and deliberate voice who from the beginning has pressed for the reinstatement of Sullivan, an option the board will consider Tuesday. He got his influence the old-fashioned way: He earned it.

Jefferson wrote to author Madame de Stael in 1807, “When wrongs are pressed because it is believed they will be borne, resistance becomes morality.” Many on campus are taking this sentiment to heart. One thing is clear: Had the board dropped its bombshell while classes were in session, with thousands of students in residence, the university would have come to a complete halt. The rector’s timing was probably deliberate. But when leaders of a university community engage in a maneuver of this sort, there is a good chance it will backfire.

What has been lost in the secrecy surrounding the board’s actions is any understanding of the educational issues at stake. News reports indicate that the board identified departments such as German and classics as a drain on resources, making them candidates for the chopping block. If true (so far the board has denied that it is), Jefferson would have argued against such cuts. He considered the study of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, as well as German, to be an essential component of the university’s curriculum. And he insisted on an education that “generates habits of application, of order, and the love of virtue.” There are financial bottom lines, and then there are academic ones.

Jefferson devoted the last part of his life to establishing the University of Virginia. It was one of his proudest achievements. In surveying the turmoil at the university today, he would surely be disappointed and troubled. But given his hopes for the “dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States,” he also would no doubt have found grounds for optimism.

ceaser@virginia.edu

James W. Ceaser is the Harry F. Byrd professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

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