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UVa trauma has an ancient echo

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Posted: Sunday, July 1, 2012 12:34 pm | Updated: 3:20 pm, Tue Jan 22, 2013.

 

Perhaps it will be remembered as the Cavalier Spring.

The University of Virginia’s disparate constituency — politicians, professors, parents, plutocrats and, perhaps forgotten since that bloody Sunday in early June, students — took to the Lawn time and again, demanding the reinstatement of Teresa Sullivan as president, despite the undemocratic designs of the school’s leader, Helen Dragas, herself a successor to founder Thomas Jefferson.

The calamity triggered by Sullivan’s forced resignation June 10 — the handiwork of Dragas, the rector, and then-Vice Rector Mark Kington, an early casualty of the controversy — will long resonate. It raises difficult questions about the governance of public higher education — long the purview of privileged insiders — and eroding taxpayer support and the private dollars, often with strings attached, making up for it.

Sullivan alluded to these issues in remarks to the throng outside the Rotunda after the board of visitors, which had never voted to fire her, decided unanimously to return her to the job she began barely two years ago. With Dragas standing behind her, Sullivan appealed for “common purpose” and acknowledged the almost populist uprising that saved her presidency.

“You have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt, I am not alone,” she said.

Nor is Sullivan alone among UVa presidents who found themselves crosswise with trustees more attuned to a corporate boardroom than a college classroom.

Dragas forced Sullivan’s resignation in a dispute over strengthening UVa’s finances and moving it rapidly into online education.

Ahead of the board vote, Dragas told fellow members that she was a victim of a “mob mentality” and anonymous attacks. She conceded, however, that public confidence in the university’s overseers had been shaken by the secretive nature of the assault on the popular Sullivan.

The drama at UVa could increase pressure on McDonnell and future governors to more closely scrutinize prospective university appointees. They are often selected from the ranks of high-dollar political donors.

An advisory committee on board candidates, created by a gubernatorial executive order in 2005 and later rooted in law by the General Assembly, is just that: advisory. Governors are not bound by its recommendations. And McDonnell’s spokesman, J. Tucker Martin, could not immediately say how many selections have been guided by the panel’s findings.

In another era, the task seemed simpler, though — as with the Sullivan episode — the stakes weren’t.

After Edwin Alderman, UVa’s first president, died in April 1931, the board of visitors dickered over the selection of a successor. John Lloyd Newcomb was named interim president, a post he held for two years while trustees argued over hiring someone who would bring the school national repute. Until Alderman became president in 1904, the university — started in 1819 — was run by a faculty committee.

The search ended where it began, with the selection of Newcomb — a process that spotlighted the limitations of trustees, historian Brent Tarter wrote in 1979:

“If the appointment of John Lloyd Newcomb may be adduced as evidence that the system worked well enough, the process by which that appointment was made illustrates that it did not work as well as it might, and that politicians, lawyers and financiers are not necessarily the people most qualified to make wise choices in the best interests of the university.”

Sound familiar?