Watching your college implode.

Daily Progress, June 26th.

Last fall when the stories from Penn State kept getting worse instead of better, I wondered about the thousands of families involved, from the center of firestorm (victims, witnesses, coaches, and administrators who seemed to allow Sandusky free rein), to those rapidly engulfed (athletes, other coaches, faculty, students — well, the entire University including its vast numbers of alumni), to those a few steps further away.

Given our household situation, with a high school senior working on college applications, I also thought about those seniors whose hopes were to move to Happy Valley in August 2012. What were they thinking about their dream school?

While Pennsylvania has been dealing with the ugly details of the Sandusky trial, our state — and college of choice — plowed into its own disaster on June 10th. Two weeks later, we’re still in the midst of that train wreck.

If you’ve not seen the story, here’s a very brief description.

On Friday, June 8th, the Rector and Vice-Rector (aka chair and vice-chair) of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors stopped by the President’s office on a day’s notice to inform President Teresa Sullivan they had the majority vote of the sixteen-member board to fire her. They demanded her resignation to avoid a public dispute.

This brief meeting took place…

  • after months of private discussions and emails between very few Board members at a time to avoid the legalities regarding public meetings,
  • after corresponding, as well, with a short list of very well-heeled alumni,
  • in the absence of any public- or closed-meeting job review process,
  • without a full meeting of the Board of Visitors,
  • less than two years into President Sullivan’s five year contract, and
  • not insignificantly, after students and much of the faculty had vacated the Grounds for summer.

On Sunday, June 10th the Rector sent an email to the University community announcing an emergency meeting of the Board of Visitors that very day to accept President Sullivan’s letter of resignation, after a “unanimous vote”.

Later that same day an email leaked from the President of the Darden School Foundation — note that this Darden alum was not on the UVa Board of Visitors, but was a potential appointee by the Governor as of July 1st. His private email, accidentally sent far and wide (including, it has been said, to President Sullivan) by that tricky “reply all” option, provided a first glimpse of the scene behind the curtain.

Since then, I’ve updated a draft of this post a number of times but, frankly, while I could keep up with the story, the incredible clusterfutz kept moving too quickly for me to write about it. I was grateful to read a couple of local journalists, covering it full time, write that they couldn’t keep up with the story themselves.

The saga has been covered by national news (NYT, WSJ, USA Today, etc.) as well as the higher ed publications (Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education); you can find plenty of stories at each of those publications.

From the local Charlottesville perspective, there are a number of helpful sites. Here are just two:  One of our local weeklies, The Hook, published Sullivan Oustermath: A timeline of UVA in tumult yesterday, with links to a number of articles. Local blogger (also White House Fellow and transparency-in-government activist) Waldo Jacquith has written much (and very well) about it; this link shows the Sullivan related articles.

From the University perspective, the UVa Faculty Senate website provides a great number of documents and links.

The UVa student newspaper, the Daily Cavalier, deserves its own shout-out. While the local, state, and national (Washington Post) reporters were following the story, the student journalists at the Daily Cavalier were the first to file Freedom of Information Act paperwork to gain access to email files from the Rector and Vice-Rector. The students took those emails, delivered on paper rather than in digital form, and tweeted excerpts to allow another look behind the curtain at the Rector’s planned coup. Be patient if you follow the link to the paper; their servers are frequently overwhelmed.

There have been many ugly parts to this story. One of the ugliest is the misinformation published by the Rector’s side — well-heeled alumni, the major PR firm hired by the Rector and paid for by UVa — attacking President Sullivan and the University. Here are a couple of examples of that tactic:

Paul Tudor Jones is “an investor and philanthropist. UVa’s John Paul Jones Arena is named in honor of his father.” Jones published an OpEd in the Charlottesville Daily Progress on June 17th, see Aspiring to Achieve Greatness:

The recent resignation of President Terry Sullivan from the University of Virginia has created a great deal of uncertainty in the Virginia community. Change is never easy and often quite messy. But here is one thing on which you can rely. The spirit of Thomas Jefferson, the first rector of the University of Virginia, is cheering this bold action by the Board of Visitors. Jefferson was a change agent, a man of action and a perfectionist. To paraphrase him, it is time for a revolution.

Responding to the inaccuracies the following week, see UVa Admissions Critique Fails to Consider Important Context, by Greg Roberts, UVa’s Dean of Undergraduate Admission.

Given the confusion and misinformation about the role of yield in college admission, I felt it was important to provide this clarification. The Office of Undergraduate Admission is committed to excellence, integrity and the enrollment of a class the university community can be proud of.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published The Virginia Fracas, an overview of the story that was full of inaccuracies, blamed the deans and faculty, and made no mention of the Rector’s lack of due process:

What inspired this campus—not to say Greek-style—spectacle? Why, U.Va.’s trustees dared to fire a president who was working against the priorities that it is ostensibly their job to set. In a word, the convulsions of Athens and Madison have arrived in Charlottesville, writ academic: An attempt to modernize a public institution and protect taxpayers is met by a revolt on behalf of a status quo that can’t last.

That prompted the UVa Darden School of Business Dean, Robert Bruner, to respond with corrections in To Fight for the Truth:

Some of the most egregious damage to the Truth could have been avoided by simple fact-checking. The latest outrage appears on today’s editorial page of the Wall Street Journal wherein it is asserted that, “The deans of 10 of the university’s 11 schools have signed a letter for Ms. Sullivan’s reinstatement. Tellingly, the one dean who didn’t sign the letter runs Virginia’s graduate business school.” That’s dead wrong. I’m the Dean of that school and I did sign the letter. In fact, I helped to prepare it—my previous blog posting says so to the world. I agree with the Deans: President Teresa Sullivan should be reinstated. I stand together with the UVA community in protest of the deeply flawed process surrounding her dismissal. This is not what we teach at Darden. We have called continually for open dialogue among parties and transparency about decisions–and will continue to press for them. The University community deserves nothing less.

Where does that leave the University? See the photograph of this morning’s paper. Today the Board of Visitors meet to reconsider their ouster of President Sullivan. Will Sullivan be reappointed? Will the Rector be out? And, if you don’t live in Virginia, what does this matter?

Many involved in higher ed — or following higher ed — believe this is part of a much larger story related to the speed of change, the cost of a college education, and the limited funding available to our great public universities. I happen to agree with them.

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