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