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UVA Teresa Sullivan Ouster Reveals Corporate Control Of Public Education

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UVA protest supporting Teresa Sullivan, tweeted by Matthew Cameron, editor in chief of the Cavalier Daily student newspaper.
UVA protest supporting Teresa Sullivan, tweeted by Matthew Cameron, editor in chief of the Cavalier Daily student newspaper.

For more than two weeks, the University of Virginia has been in an uproar over the abrupt resignation of school President Teresa Sullivan. Sullivan stepped down after just two years in office, citing "philosophical differences" with the institution's governing Board of Visitors.

The June 10 announcement shocked students and faculty, who had just finished graduation festivities and had begun settling in for a hot, quiet summer surrounded by the Charlottesville school's neoclassical columns and red brick architecture. Sullivan is highly regarded within the academic community, and her supporters have rallied to her defense, rocking the campus with massive protests demanding her reinstatement.

"She is an extraordinary academic leader, with superb administrative abilities, the heart of a faculty member, and evident strength of character,” the school’s top faculty wrote in a letter to the board on June 11.

While the school was stunned by Sullivan's ouster, a plot to force her out had been building in secret for months, according to emails released by UVA at the request of the Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper.

Members of the board, steeped in a culture of corporate jargon and buzzy management theories, wanted the school to institute austerity measures and re-engineer its academic offerings around inexpensive, online education, the emails reveal. Led by Rector Helen Dragas, a real estate developer appointed six years ago, the board shared a guiding vision that the university could, and indeed should, be run like a Fortune 500 company.

The controversy, which threatens to seriously damage one of the country's oldest and most prestigious public universities, has implications beyond its own idyllic, academic refuge. For some, it is emblematic of how the cult of corporate expertise and private-sector savvy has corralled the upper reaches of university life, at the expense of academic freedom and "unprofitable" areas of study.

"There is this sort of shift in the zeitgeist," says Tal Brewer, chair of UVA's Philosophy Department. Brewer sees a new, heightened cultural "adoration of the business mind as capable of bringing clarity, organization and efficiency to any kind of institution...I just think that's a deep mistake."

In an era in which the best and the brightest financiers laid the groundwork for the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and the Supreme Court allowed corporate sponsors and wealthy donors to upend the political system with unlimited campaign contributions, Brewer says he sees the upheaval in Charlottesville as more of the same.

"What's happening at other kinds of institutions around the country is now coming home to roost in higher education," Brewer says.

'WE CAN'T AFFORD TO WAIT'

Sullivan spent most of her career rising through the ranks at the University of Texas and was a deeply respected provost at the University of Michigan before coming to the University of Virginia in 2010. As the first female president at a school that did not even admit women until 1971, Sullivan's appointment was a significant milestone.

Outwardly, her first two years appeared congenial and uncontroversial. Sullivan undertook initiatives to bolster the faculty’s ability to teach more intimately, cede greater budget discretion to the academic departments, and attempted to close what many acknowledge to be a "reputation gap" with graduate programs. Pushing for more budget control and better quality programs won Sullivan strong allies within the student body and faculty, according to faculty members interviewed by HuffPost.

"I think she's done a terrific job," Brewer says.

But as the Washington Post has detailed, Dragas had long held reservations about Sullivan and questioned whether she was willing to make cost-saving cuts to certain departments and programs -- including Classics and German.

The board never formally evaluated Sullivan's performance. But the emails obtained by the the Cavalier Daily demonstrate that Dragas worked closely with her vice rector, Mark Kington, planning Sullivan’s ouster -- while shielding their machinations from students and professors.

The rationale for the leadership change is as strange as the secrecy. Dragas and Kington appear to have built their case against Sullivan from just a few media articles that offer vague praise for the use of Internet technology in higher education, according to the emails.

Dragas displayed particular esteem for a David Brooks column in an email to Kington, in which the New York Times columnist touts the sort of online education initiatives undertaken by the for-profit University of Phoenix. "What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web," Brooks wrote.

"Don't dismiss the for-profit colleges and universities, either," proclaimed John Chubb and Terry Moe in a Wall Street Journal editorial. "Institutions such as the University of Phoenix -- and it is hardly alone -- have embraced technology aggressively."

Dragas, who sent this article to Kington, included a reminder in one of the emails obtained by the Cavalier that this was, apparently, "Why we can't afford to wait."

This emphasis on the for-profit education sector has been particularly dismaying to UVA faculty, especially within the context of the budget cuts Dragas reportedly sought in programs including the Classics and German departments. For-profit schools are not well-regarded in the academic community, and have been embroiled in scandals in the past few years for exploitive practices that include recruiting students eligible for federal loans and grants, but graduating fewer than half the enrollees.

A Chronicle of Higher Education article, which Dragas also sent Kington, characterized the traditional pursuit of academic excellence as something that “strangled” innovation, and argued that "the pace of change is stuck somewhere between sluggish and glacial."

"College leaders need to move beyond talking about transformation before it's too late," the article urged.

"Good article," Dragas commented to Kington in her email.

None of the emails between Dragas and Kington suggest that either read serious studies on technological opportunities in the classroom, or considered how UVA's current programs could be adapted to new Internet-based techniques. They did not appoint a commission to make recommendations or conduct a study of their own.

"Reading a few op-eds and articles in the Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Ed does not qualify you to make definitive judgments about hugely complex issues such as the promise and perils of online learning," says John Arras, director of the UVA Bioethics Program. "We are dealing here for the most part with a bunch of amateurs who think they know everything, but really know very little about the academic culture and what makes us tick."

The board never held a formal vote on ousting Sullivan. Instead, according to the Washington Post, Dragas and Kington told Sullivan they had rounded up the votes necessary to remove her, and told her to resign or face being formally fired. Sullivan's resignation was announced two days later.

"The board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation," Dragas told a meeting of university vice presidents and deans on June 10. "We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change. The world is simply moving too fast."

Dragas, Kington, and Sullivan did not respond to requests for comment.

The university rebelled against the coup fiercely and swiftly. Provost John Simon threatened to resign, the Faculty Senate passed a vote of no confidence in the board, and the school's student-run honor committee accused the board of compromising the school’s "community of trust." The Cavalier Daily ran an editorial calling for the resignation of every member of the Board of Visitors. Kington stepped down on June 19.

Despite her affection for cost-cutting, Dragas hired Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a crisis management public relations firm. According to The Hook, a Charlottesville weekly magazine, the bill for those services will run from $50,000 to $100,000, and will be paid by the University of Virginia Foundation, a non-profit corporation that administers the school’s economic assets.

But the pricey PR has failed to quell the uproar. Much of the furor has been fueled by the board's continued refusal to publicly explain why its members felt Sullivan had fallen short.

I have “not been presented with evidence that I believe merits asking for her resignation,” said Heywood Fralin, one member of the Board of Visitors who made his opposition to Sullivan’s ouster publicly known.

Calls for Sullivan to be reinstated have reached a fever pitch. A board-appointed interim president from the undergraduate business school, Carl Zeithaml, wrote an email to faculty members on Friday morning saying he would step aside, given the "enormous groundswell of support" for Sullivan.

Zeithaml's refusal to accept the office puts the board in a difficult position, making it hard to see who, if anyone would be willing to replace Sullivan amid the turmoil.

'STRATEGIC DYNAMISM'

Dragas' obsession with rapid change is part of a corporate management philosophy called "strategic dynamism" also advocated by some of her top allies.

After Sullivan's resignation was announced, Peter Kiernan, a former Goldman Sachs partner and wealthy hedge fund manager, sent an email to his colleagues on the board of UVA's acclaimed Darden School of business supporting the ouster.

"Several weeks ago I was contacted by two important Virginia alums about working with Helen Dragas on this project, particularly from the standpoint of the search process and the strategic dynamism effort," Kiernan wrote, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

"The decision of the Board of Visitors to move in another direction stems from their concern that the governance of the university was not sufficiently tuned to the dramatic changes we all face: funding, Internet, technology advances, the new economic model," Kiernan wrote, according to Siva Vaidhyanathan, a UVA professor and writer for Slate, who obtained a copy of the email. "These are matters for strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning.

"You should be comforted by the fact that both the Rector and Vice Rector, Helen Dragas and Mark Kington, are Darden alums," Kiernan wrote. "Trust me, Helen has things well in hand."

Kiernan denies having any direct role in Sullivan's ouster and told HuffPost he resigned from the Darden board after his email became public, "out of love for the school."

Strategy dynamics essentially means moving very quickly, shifting short-term goals at a moment's notice when the business environment changes.

Protesters pushing back against the board have bonded in mutual mockery over this term, featuring the slogan disparagingly on signs, passing around satires of the philosophy, comparing it to narcissism.

And that's the core of the crisis at UVA. The board is not simply more attuned to corporate interests and ideas than those of higher education professionals -- the board quite literally is a cadre of corporate elites.

The 16-member UVA Board of Visitors is appointed by the governor. Former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) named half the current members, and Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) brought on the other half. In addition to Dragas, board members include a coal company magnate, a Wall Street professional, a top lawyer for General Electric, a nursing home executive, a beer distribution entrepreneur, the son of conservative televangelist Pat Robertson and other business elites.

Many are UVA alumni, but only a few have any professional experience in higher education. The UVA board differs sharply in that respect from some other top-notch schools, private and public. Harvard, for instance, features 10 academics.

What Dragas and her supporters do have is money. After accumulating fortunes in the private sector, Dragas and her 15 colleagues showered politicians with cash.

The current slate of board members have given over $2.1 million to Republican and Democratic political endeavors in recent years, according to a HuffPost analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the Virginia Public Access Project. The donations cover every corner of the political spectrum, from obscure House races to the presidency to the Karl Rove-linked super PAC American Crossroads. They include roughly $1.2 million given to political action committees run by Kaine and McDonnell. Companies owned by board members or that employ board members have given still more.

Only one member of the board, non-voting student representative Hillary Hurd, has not given money to political campaigns.

This heavy preference for politically connected elites over academic professionals in Virginia public higher education is a relatively recent phenomenon, according to John Casteen III, who served as president of UVA for the 20 years prior to Sullivan. As the state secretary of education from 1982 until 1985, Casteen was involved in selecting UVA board members.

"Political contributions to our governors have become more important factors in the selection of our board members," Casteen told HuffPost. "The question of whether or not people who are political allies and are identified popularly as having been donors to campaigns, that issue never came up back when I was serving on the governor's staff."

Casteen's dissatisfaction with the UVA board is especially noteworthy in light of his own professional background. He served on the board of Wachovia Bank while he was president of UVA and joined the board of tobacco giant Altria after leaving the university.

Virginia's governor offered a cautious defense of the board in a statement last week, celebrating its members' financial wherewithal.

"The members of the Board of Visitors are almost all alumni," Gov. McDonnell said. "They are people who are highly successful and deeply committed and have great love for the University of Virginia. Many have given sacrificially of their money and their time over the years."

Fetishizing corporate expertise has become a common in politics. Mitt Romney has made his business experience a tenet of his presidential campaign. Republicans on Capitol Hill recite the mantra about private-sector "job creators" being the keys to economic growth.

The belief in the universal prowess of corporate elites is not limited to Republicans. Democrats -- including former President Bill Clinton, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker -- also have attacked President Barack Obama's efforts to portray Romney and the private equity industry as disconnected from the concerns of everyday citizens.

With bipartisan support for the idea that the accumulation of piles of money connotes expertise, analysts say they now fear that universities will become beholden to the same mindset.

"I don't think necessarily the Boards of Visitors in the Virginia public institutions are the worst example," says Robert Kreiser of the American Association of University Professors. "Texas is the place where this has gone to the extreme, where first [George] Bush and now [Rick] Perry have been filling the boards with political appointees who are favorably disposed to a view of higher education, which is very corporatist and not understanding of what the academic mission should be about."

The professors' group has called for Sullivan's reinstatement and Dragas' resignation.

"The performance of the UVA Board was less than what we need from governing boards in American higher education," says Richard Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. "The UVA board missed a sensitivity to the broader community and engaged in what I call top-down management, which they have the authority to do, but which is not consistent with an inclusive approach valued in higher education."

The crisis is now reaching what may be its most critical moment. In the face of heavy criticism over his handling of the situation, McDonnell wrote a sternly worded letter to the board, warning that he would request the resignations of every member if the situation is not resolved by Tuesday's board meeting. Dragas responded with similar aggression.

"We alone are appointed to make these decisions on behalf of the university, free of influence from outside political, personal or media pressure," Dragas said in a statement.

The school's faculty continues to challenge the legal legitimacy of Sullivan's dismissal, on the grounds that faculty members were excluded from the decision. On Wednesday, faculty members participated in the second of two major rallies for Sullivan on UVA's Lawn. Another protest is scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

"Making a lot of money does not demonstrate that you are very smart," says Arras, the Bioethics Program professor. "And even if you are very clever, there are different types of intelligence. A successful real estate empire is not at all like a university. These people are talking about cutting classics -- Greeks and Romans, the foundations of Western thought -- because it's not profitable enough."