The UVa Drama Just Won’t Quit

The New York Times Magazine has posted its cover story for this Sunday. It’s an attempt at a comprehensive account of the deposition and reposition of the University of Virginia’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan, in June.

The article, written by Andrew Rice, gets much right. It captures the confusing pace of those two weeks fairly well. Rice was able to interview many of the principals, including the rector, Helen E. Dragas, head of the UVa Board of Visitors. Dragas has been reluctant to revisit the drama. And to this day, she has refused to fully explain her actions. Needless to say, she has yet to apologize to the students, faculty, and alumni whom she harmed and insulted. But the closest to a revealing explanation comes in the Times article. It’s worth reading for Dragas’s comments alone.

Rice came to UVa over the summer to get the “real story,” as he told me when he interviewed me. I told him at the time that there was no “real story.” There was no mysterious or nefarious conspiracy at work. There was no hidden agenda, at least after the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, exposed e-mails that Dragas had sent to other board members and university administrators.

The trauma was merely the result of a fairly predictable confluence of ignorance and arrogance executed by a group of people unused to having their judgment questioned. After much digging, Rice eventually agreed with me.

“As it turns out, a ‘philosophical difference’ wasn’t just a euphemism,” Rice wrote. “It was an apt description of a clash between two fundamentally different theories of leadership.”

Those differences included, but were hardly limited to, the impression that UVa was not leading the way in digital experimentation. Of course, only someone who did not care to look around UVa could have come to such a conclusion.

What has become very clear over the past few months, although Rice does not discuss this point in his article, is that Dragas and her cohort are so unaware of the work done at the university that the public has entrusted them to govern that they acted recklessly—only to discover later that UVa is, in fact, a leader in many of the areas about which she expressed concern. Board members have a fiduciary duty to understand the institutions they oversee. Dragas committed a serious abrogation of her duties.

That’s my biggest disappointment with Rice’s piece. It puts personality first, so we miss the meat of it. We learn that Dragas criticized Sullivan for how the president dresses. Then Dragas bristled at the notion that such a comment could be construed as sexist. But at no point did Rice or Dragas consider the fact that such a criticism is also classist. Sullivan, it seems, is not Dragas’s kind of person. This personal rift is true—perhaps relevant, certainly interesting—but ultimately banal.

The real moral of the story is that public-university governing boards have prescribed duties to protect the reputation of institutions, make decisions openly and honestly, and know the workings of their institutions. As a letter to the board from a group of influential alumni outlines, the board, under Dragas’s direction, has breached its fiduciary duty and continues to do so, long after reinstating Sullivan and wishing the whole affair away.

These alums are not wishing it away. They continue to remind legislators and the governor’s office that the board is in big trouble. There should be major fallout during the next legislative session.

In addition to missing the big issue, Rice’s article has two major flaws. First, it took some meaningless things and made them seem meaningful. And second, it got a few facts wrong.

Rice says that “Sullivan herself rejected the option of increasing revenue by greatly expanding the student body.” While technically true, if only because that sentence includes the word “greatly,” Rice failed to inform readers that one of Sullivan’s first acts as president was to cut a deal with Gov. Bob McDonnell to increase undergraduate enrollment by 300 students per year for five years.

For a tiny public university like UVa, which currently has only 14,500 undergraduates, this is a significant increase. UVa already lacks classroom space and faculty to handle its current demands. So Sullivan carefully crafted the deal to allow for an increase in faculty as well, but one far short of proportional.

Rice asserts: “Despite this and other successes, though, Sullivan was not considered an inspirational figure.” I can’t imagine where he got that idea. He can’t have polled faculty, students, and alumni. Every university president has detractors. But one cannot miss the overall respect and adoration that students and faculty demonstrated for her even before the events of June. Again, while perhaps technically true (how many university presidents have ever inspired?), the statement leaves the impression that support for Sullivan was sudden and situational. That could not be farther from the truth.

Worse, Rice mentions that low faculty salaries were a concern within this discussion. He cites a strange figure: Full professors at UVa allegedly earn an average of $141,000 per year. Now, as everyone in this business knows, this is a meaningless figure. Such amounts often include salaries from the law school and the medical schools, which compete with the private sector for top labor. It also includes the salaries of the president herself and all of the deans.

Most gravely, using full-professor salaries as a proxy for faculty salaries is like using average colonel salaries to represent soldiers’ pay. Why do reporters seem to think “full” means something less than the top level of a pay grade?

Rice also neglects to include any information about faculty compensation from peer institutions. Those numbers are easy to find. Apparently he does not subscribe to The Chronicle.

When I wrote to question his use of this misleading number, Rice replied:

I take your point. Actually, my editor and I discussed that very issue, very late in the evening before the story went to press. She made the same point you were making. I had taken the figure originally from [the UVa donor] Paul Jones’ op-ed (in the Charlottesville Daily Progress during the crisis) where he cited the $140,000 number (ironically) as evidence of the faculty’s impoverished condition. The issue, at 8 p.m. on a Friday, was that we knew it would be impossible to immediately obtain a more representative number, so we had a discussion about whether it would be better to have that number or no number at all. I thought that most knowledgeable readers would realize that a full professor means the top end of the pay scale. But I realize you may well be right.

As I wrote when Rector Dragas assumed we at UVa were not at the cutting edge of digital experimentation, why didn’t he just ask?

Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor and chairman of the department of media studies at the University of Virginia, and teaches in its law school.

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