The UVa Rector’s Peculiar Approach to Free Expression

Helen Dragas (Photograph by Justin Ide for The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Aside from lingering outrage among students and faculty, one factor drawing out the University of Virginia’s leadership crisis has been the regular surfacing of internal e-mails from key players. Obtained by journalists through open-records requests, the e-mails raise fresh questions, even as the administration understandably seeks to put the crisis to rest. (As a former member of the Board of Visitors put it recently, “The more you dig, the more you make the university look bad.”)

The latest batch of e-mails suggests that this desire to move on may be wishful thinking on the administration’s part.

On September 12, The Washington Post reported on a newly released tranche of e-mails between Rector Helen Dragas and other members of the university community. Among the messages are two exchanges that shed disturbing new light on the rector’s actions in the wake of her efforts to oust President Teresa Sullivan. Both speak volumes about her idiosyncratic understanding of free expression at the university whose board she oversees.

To put it bluntly, these e-mail exchanges point to a direct and covert attempt on Dragas’s part to influence the content of students’ and faculty’s written expression.

On the night of June 14, when the crisis was becoming unmanageable, Dragas wrote to one of the most prominent members of the faculty, Larry Sabato, a university professor of politics, with the subject line “your assistance is critical.” The message begins with a bold-faced bid for attention: “The BOV could certainly use some informed voices to weigh in on this conversation, and quickly.” Dragas’s e-mail concludes with this plea:

Would you please write an op-ed for the Post or NYT? … I feel this needs to be done immediately.

Sabato responded politely but firmly, informing Dragas that he would get back to her soon as his schedule allowed. Within minutes Dragas shot back a reply:

Time is of the essence—do you have a staffer who could assist if you make the decision to move forward today? It would be important for it to be someone you trust completely—the resistant forces of change are still lodged within the administration.

Leaving aside the paranoid tone here (and the managerial hubris of suggesting that a subordinate write the requested piece), the mind reels at the spectacle: The rector of a great university urging a faculty member to write an opinion piece expressing her own opinion.

Of course, Larry Sabato being Larry Sabato, there was little danger of retribution had he refused to respond to Dragas’s request. (He did not write an op-ed supporting her.) It’s not as if the rector was attempting to strong-arm an untenured assistant professor to write in support of her position.

Yet the directness of the reporting lines here makes the rector’s actions all the more remarkable. As a university professor, a distinguished designation at UVa, Sabato reports directly to the president, who serves at the pleasure of the Board of Visitors. As rector, Dragas presides over the board, the body invested with authority over personnel matters at the university—such as faculty appointments and salaries (including Sabato’s). While it’s understandable that Dragas would try to enlist the support of a prominent university figure, her blatant attempt to pressure a faculty member into writing an opinion piece taking a position in her support was at best unethical.

Even more disturbing is a newly surfaced exchange between Dragas and an undergraduate. On June 12, she wrote to Hillary Hurd, the recently appointed student representative on the Board of Visitors:


Do you know of students on grounds who might be willing to assist with a communications effort by engaging constructively in the blogs as guided by a communications consultant?

Thanks, Helen

Let’s think about this for a moment. The leader of a public university, appointed by the governor, writes a student asking for her help in rounding up other students to work with a “communications consultant” she has hired—a consultant to be tasked with coaching the writing of these students’ blog posts in support of the rector’s controversial position.

We have known for months that Dragas sought the help of a public-relations firm to guide her own communications. What this rather astonishing e-mail to Hurd further suggests is that Dragas was also enlisting the firm to oversee the content of what would be passed off as independent student communications and expression.

One of the central roles of a university is to cultivate forms of free and open expression that embody the public sphere. What Dragas sought to create was something that looked like a public sphere, but would in fact be a planted product of corporate media relations, to go unrevealed as such.

More damning still is what this e-mail tells us about the rector’s blindness to the implications of deploying a private consultant to shape the content of students’ writing. Faculty members have some experience with students who present the words of others as their own. All UVa students must sign the university’s Honor Code. They are bound, under threat of expulsion, by the assumption that any work presented as theirs is independently conceived and written. That assumption holds true both within the classroom and in any forum in which students “represent themselves as University students in order to gain the trust of others”—such as student-produced blogs.

While no one would accuse Dragas of knowingly suborning plagiarism, the mere suggestion that a “communications consultant” would “guide” the content of student expression on behalf of the rector raises serious new questions about Dragas’s suitability for her office.

Dragas has as much right as anyone to express her opinion. She is free to “engag[e] constructively” on a blog, or to “write an op-ed for the Post or NYT.” But as the board’s own manual states, one of the rector’s responsibilities is “intelligent and considerate observance of the rights of the faculty and the student body”—including their right to express themselves without intimidation, coercion, or even (one would hope) aggressive nudging by the officer to whom all of them must answer.

Time will tell what comes of this surreptitious attempt by UVa’s appointed leader to enlist her own university’s faculty and students to advocate the legitimacy of her views. Dragas’s actions provide yet more evidence that the rector has undermined the fundamental values of the institution she serves.

Bruce Holsinger is a professor of English at the University of Virginia and a former associate dean for humanities and the arts in UVa’s College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Return to Top