June 18, 2012

The Virginians, They Smell Blood

Image courtesy of the Lee Foundation
When Helen Dragas, rector of the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia, hurled the blade that decapitated the University's administration, she did so with the rightful impunity earned by her rank and office. In the week following the announcement that the Visitors were forcing Teresa Sullivan to step down as the U.Va. president, Ms. Dragas unapologetically ingeminated the contention that Ms. Sullivan simply would not move quickly enough to adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

During most of the past week, protests erupted amongst faculty and staff. Members of the administration were, however, largely silent, offering implicit endorsements of the board's authority if not its decision writ large.

On Sunday, the University's chief academic officer, Provost John Simon, broke that uneasy silence. In an address to the faculty senate, Mr. Simon voiced displeasure at the Board's decision, even suggesting he may leave the University if the Visitors botch the process further. "The Board actions over the next few days," Mr. Simon intoned,  "will inform me as to whether the University of Virginia remains the type of institution I am willing to dedicate my efforts to help lead."

Mr. Simon's paired his pronouncement with a personal expression of obligation to his sons, to provide them  "personal examples of courage during a crisis."

Mr. Simon's sentiments are undoubtedly heartfelt, but they also come at the same time as two important wrinkles to the tale unfolding in Charlottesville. One of the most prolific givers to the University, Hunter Smith, has requested that Mr. Dragas and her colleagues step down from the Board. And word this morning suggests that some Visitors requested Ms. Sullivan to remain at the University despite her having agreeing to resign last week.

Viewed in context, Mr. Simon's remarks suggest that U.Va.'s leadership smells blood. The board, seemingly impervious to the fusillade of attacks from faculty, students and media alike, has begun to show the extent of its injuries, and they are deep indeed.

The board will need to staunch the bleeding, but doing so presents a spate of unpalatable options. Quelling the siege by faculty and students would almost certainly require reinstating Ms. Sullivan; but doing so undermines the Visitors' authority and sours any potential for future cooperation between Ms. Sullivan and the board charged with overseeing her. Standing pat would reinforce the absolute authority of the Visitors to manage the University and its employees, but threatens to tear the campus asunder and instigate a mass exodus of top faculty and administrators.

Ms. Dragas hatched a daring plan -- normatively correct or otherwise -- to oust the University's president. Such is her prerogative. Unfortunately for her, Ms. Dragas seems to have underestimated the passions she would face in doing so. The faculty senate met with the Visitors this morning and demanded Ms. Dragas and her conspirators resign, adding to the chorus of donors and state officials that has drowned out Ms. Dragas's few defenders.

We at Little Green Blog struggle to imagine how she reasonably resists the call. By all accounts, her plot teeters on the precipice of failure, her board's unified front is fissuring, and the din of her opponents grows louder by the day. This riveting chapter will likely be the last one Ms. Dragas contributes to the history of the University of Virginia.

Addendum: One source reports that Ms. Dragas is digging in her heels and hiring a public relations firm to help her survive the storm. The move will likely only increase faculty displeasure as it positions Ms. Dragas not as a steward of the University but as an aggressor to it.

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