What We Learned at UVa

As much as I like and respect President Teresa Sullivan of the University of Virginia, the two-week struggle to restore her to her office was never about her. It was about who gets to guide the future of a great public research university. And in a sense, it was about how all great public research universities will be governed and guided in the next few years.

That’s why it was so gratifying to receive supportive correspondence from people around the world. Alumni and students were the most vocal. They saw the potential hijacking of UVa by a small cabal of market- and techno-fundamentalists as a clear danger to not only the traditions of their alma mater but to the very value of the degrees they have earned.

I have had a day to reflect on how it all went down. I compiled a few bullet points that I hope outline a bit of how we accomplished what two weeks ago seemed impossible. We have already seen a similar attempted ouster of President Bill Powers of the University of Texas at Austin. And we have seen a successful removal of Texas A&M’s President Elsa Murano in 2009. In each case, the president was accused by business-minded board members of failing to move fast enough toward a radically different model of higher education.

We at the University of Virginia hope that more universities that encounter such hostile takeovers manage to fend them off the way Texas and Virginia did. And we feel for our colleagues at Texas A&M who must recover from such trauma and humiliation under difficult circumstances. We hope that others can learn from our experience.

• Faculty discipline makes all the difference.

“Discipline” is not a word one usually associates with committees of faculty members. And it’s almost never applied to a faculty senate. But our Faculty Senate surprised everyone with its careful articulation of reasonable demands, its moral authority to speak for the entire faculty of every school at the university, and its clear, unified, sober response to every development. When many of us doubted that we could persuade the Board of Visitors to restore President Sullivan, the core leadership of the Faculty Senate refused to waiver from that clear and modest demand. They saw her restoration as the only conceivable way to undo the damage to the university’s reputation, and they said so repeatedly in the press, before the board, and to the broader faculty. The senate leadership avoided histrionics and hyperbole. The president of the senate, George Cohen, a law professor who has taught at UVa since 1992, presented an image that the Board of Visitors had to respect. Not coincidentally, Cohen teaches courses on “professional responsibility.”

The lesson here is that department chairs like me must take the appointment of representatives to the Faculty Senate very seriously. We should not put first-year assistant professors in the senate to learn all about the how the university works. And we should not put our most demonstrative, politically unsavvy senior colleagues in the senate either, because they might not exhibit the discipline, wisdom, and self-control needed in a crisis.

Every public university across the country could face a similar crisis soon. It might not be a showdown with a board. It could be a clash with the president or provost. It could be a schism within the faculty. Regardless, a trustworthy faculty senate is essential at those moments. We at UVa will never again take it for granted.

• Trust students to get it fast and get it right.

Before faculty members like me went public with our sense of outrage and analysis of the cause of the meltdown at UVa, students were organizing themselves via Facebook and Twitter. The rector might have timed this coup to hit when the fewest students were in Charlottesville. But she apparently ignored the potential of the very digital technologies she seemed to champion in her back-channel e-mail messages. This event was so easy to oppose on procedural grounds that students did not need much time to wait around for long and detailed explanations. They sensed immediately that the rector had violated UVa’s “community of trust.” Many students instantly saw that the rector had violated the honor code, something most UVa alumni and students hold dear and take seriously. It became a clear case of right and wrong to students. It helped that President Sullivan had spent two years strolling the grounds with a smile and time to chat with students. She is the most visible and accessible president I have ever seen. And students sensed that her demeanor meant she appreciates and respects students. That goodwill came rushing back to her when she needed it most. A student-led Facebook group quickly swelled to more than 16,000 members. That group coordinated a huge rally over the second weekend of the crisis and a steady letter-writing campaign to board members, the governor, and legislators. That meant that students in Jakarta, Jamaica, and Jamestown felt invested and involved. It meant that no one could doubt the broad commitment that students had to a broad liberal education. Without instant and loud student support, the faculty could not have claimed so easily that it had the best interest of students at heart. The students had our backs. And we will never forget that.

• Let alumni work their magic.

This coup was engineered by a fraction of the Board of Visitors acting in a manipulative and dishonest way. These board members were assisted by two or three billionaires who had decided that President Sullivan was not their kind of president. But the vast majority of UVa alumni were thrilled with the messages that President Sullivan had sent them over the first two years of her time in office. Most UVa alumni had not known a president other than John Casteen, who served for 20 years before stepping down in 2010. It’s not that alumni were emotionally attached to Sullivan or particularly aware of her initiatives. Those were mostly internal, financial, unspectacular, and prudent. The alumni reacted viscerally against the ouster for the same reason the students, Virginia taxpayers, and editorial boards of major Virginia newspapers did: You just don’t treat people that way.

But it went beyond that. UVa alums also treasure the traditions of the place. Those traditions include deep respect for faculty. Again, I can testify from personal experience that the reverence that students and alumni hold toward UVa faculty is overwhelming. I’ve been here only five years, so I have not yet earned that level of respect myself. But I feel it and benefit from the decades of goodwill that my predecessors have built up with their good works.

• Spread the word about how great the university is.

UVa is a special place. So much of this alumni and student activism might be hard to replicate in places less steeped in tradition and reverence. But if faculty members anywhere do their jobs with passion and commitment and let people know about it, it’s not hard to get the public to listen and respect the message.

We have heard for years that scholars have to work on their message to justify their jobs, especially if they toil in unsexy or nonutilitarian fields. I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to “go public.” But connecting with a larger public to share passion, curiosity, and a commitment to the public good can have its own rewards. It’s not about interviewing for our jobs over and over again. It’s about showing respect for taxpayers, parents, students, and alumni. They want to know what we do and why we do it. Dozens of faculty members took the opportunity of this crisis to reintroduce ourselves to the public. We bragged about our students. We gushed about our colleagues’ work. We invited people to come visit to see what we do. We explained that the public research university is both broad and deep, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that public service is one of the core missions of any responsible public university.

That activity mattered immensely. It countered some pernicious stereotypes about complacent, out-of-touch, tweedy academics who are deaf to public concerns. We were able to articulate all the innovative stuff we do in classrooms and labs. And for once, reporters and radio talk-show hosts wanted to sincerely know why all of this matters and why anyone should value the public research university.

This fight is not over. It has only just begun. There are plenty of pundits, think tanks, and consulting firms issuing bloated PowerPoint presentations in the guise of “policy statements” or “analysis.” The misinformation about public higher education is thick and strong. Those spreading the myths are well financed and get top billing in major media outlets.

Higher education needs its own corps of articulate thinkers, writers, and speakers to counter this propaganda. But more important, we all need to better engage with the lives, minds, and concerns of students, alumni, and the public. It’s not just a strategy to deal with the next attack. It’s good practice in general. It’s the ethical way to be a devoted and responsible public servant.

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