The University of Virginia Board of Visitors unanimously reinstated President Teresa Sullivan yesterday, two weeks after the same governing body demanded her resignation. We get an update on the situation in Charlottesville.
- Nick Anderson Education Editor, Washington Post
The university’s governing board reinstated Teresa Sullivan as president Tuesday following student protests and national criticism. Read more about the reversal here. Photo credit: Armando Trull, WAMU 88.5.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, a crash course on cooling off for the summer with delicious drinks, but first cooling off the fiery summer controversy at the University of Virginia. Yesterday, the Board of Visitors at UVA voted to unanimously reinstate President Teresa Sullivan just two weeks after the same group of people pressured her to resign.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe debate over the attempt to push Sullivan out unleashed a torrent of protests by faculty and students and exposed some of the ugly internal politics of the board that makes decisions about the schools future. Joining us to sort through what's happened already and examine the potential fallout is Nick Anderson. He is the education editor at the Washington Post. Nick Anderson, thank you for joining us.
MR. NICK ANDERSONThank you for having us, Kojo, appreciate it.
NNAMDIThe Board of Visitors was staring down the barrel of a gun, so to speak, yesterday, Governor Bob McDonnell telling them before the weekend that if they did not work out the leadership issue at UVA, then he'd call on every single one of them to resign. We ended up with a unanimous vote to reinstate Teresa Sullivan. How did...
ANDERSONIt was really a shock.
NNAMDIYes, how did we get from point A to point B so quickly?
ANDERSONThis story is really head-spinning to us. Every single twist and turn has been of note. It is really rare that the governing board of the University gets such scrutiny on the front page, day after day after day. I'm still marveling at this. The -- what you referred to from the governor is true. They were staring at the barrel of a gun, figuratively. But I also think that yesterday story, in some sense now that you look at it in retrospect, it makes a little bit of sense. That if the winds were blowing in Teresa Sullivan's favor, why not all get on board, make it unanimous and sing a UVA song at the end?
NNAMDIAs if to say, that was our evil twin board that made the previous decision ten days ago. This is really who we are. The Post ran a piece on Sunday about a central question driving this debate. What should our premier public universities be? What did you...
NNAMDI...see as being at stake and what's been happening in Charlottesville?
ANDERSONWell, you know, that's a very interesting question. There's two strands to this story. One is process and one is the sort of the underlying philosophical issues about public education, public higher education. Let's talk about the latter.
ANDERSONIt -- we have, in Virginia and in some states, really, really high -- highly regarded public universities that some people call them Public Ivy's to compare them to the ivy leagues. And these universities are, by and large, losing state support, fiscally. The amount of money that flows to the universities from the state government is far less than it used to be. And in Virginia, the number that I've seen is about -- or the share that I've seen is about 6 to 7 percent from the State of Virginia for the UVA operating budget.
ANDERSONNow, that has profound consequences because when you're forced to operate a public institution with an eye more on the bottom line and on raising money from donors and from tuition, that changes the reckoning to whether the institution has to think about, sort of, its return on its investment. And there's a number of people who think that, you know, public universities need to be more nimble, more agile and sort of, look into the future and grapple with these revenue issues in a very direct and blunt way.
ANDERSONAnd the critics of Teresa Sullivan said she wasn't doing enough of that. Now, that's a big point of debate and it's not for me to say that they were right, but that's one of the key underlying issues here in this controversy, is sort of the level of state support for public higher education, how it's been dwindling over the years and how those universities respond.
NNAMDIYou mentioned earlier whether or not they're getting a return on their investment. And that seems to be at the center of the debate over what the future of public universities in general and the University of Virginia, in particular, should be. And that is, when people think of return on investment, they think, okay, they should be preparing young people for careers and specific high growth...
NNAMDI...fields. On the other hand there are those -- and we've had a professor from the university on this broadcast who say, no intellectual achievement is much more than simply preparing people to get a good job. Intellectual accomplishment has to do with preparing people to have a better understanding of the world in which we live. And if public universities abandon that mission, they will in effect, not be fulfilling the purpose for which they were intended.
ANDERSONYes, and you know it's really an interesting question. I think that universities are striving to do both, you know. They're striving to provide the broadest possible assortment of intellectual endeavors for people to learn how to learn and to understand what sort of liberal education is and, you know, dive into topics that have absolutely nothing to do with the career that they may ultimately wind up in. At the same time, it's, of course, foolish for universities to ignore job markets and sort of not have academic programs that support, in the long term, the things the nation needs. And we hear a lot of talk about STEM, for instance, science...
ANDERSON...technology, engineering and math. And, you know, those fields, the president talks about them all the time. I'm talking about, right now, about President Obama. President Obama talks about STEM a lot. Why does he talk about it? Because it's considered strategic to our economy and he wants lower education and higher education to really focus in on that.
ANDERSONI think that Teresa Sullivan, president of UVA, would agree whole heartedly, that STEM is a critical priority. And she would agree whole heartedly that, you know, the University of Virginia and other major public universities need to offer in addition to the, sort of, the kind of majors and post graduate degrees that feed our economy, they need to -- offer things that feed our minds. I think she wants both.
NNAMDINick Anderson is an education editor at the Washington Post. He joins us from studios at the Washington Post. If you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. How do you think the leadership dispute at the University of Virginia reflects upon the school? Do you expect it will take a reputational hit, so to speak, from this episode, 800-433-8850? Neil -- Nick Anderson, how would you assess the damage that this dispute has already done at the University of Virginia?
ANDERSONWell, that's kind of tricky. You know, I would say that the governing board, itself, is still reeling. Several of the board members, their terms expire on Sunday, four of them. There's also a vacancy in the governing board. And there's a new positioning on the governing board that was created by the legislature. So Governor Bob McDonnell, whose job is to appoint the members of the trustees of boards in Virginia universities, he has, in front of him, a lot of choices to face about who he puts on that board.
NNAMDIHave you reporters been able to get a read yet on the governor's thinking when it comes to whether Helen Dragas should be reappointed?
ANDERSONHe's not tipping his hand. We hear that there could be an announcement as early as Friday on who McDonnell wants on the board. What was interesting about the rector, that's the name of the leader of the board of visitors, Helen Dragas and Teresa Sullivan, yesterday was that they seemed to be sort of teaming up hand in hand, almost to say, well, let's move forward together at this university. Does that mean that Sullivan moves forward with Dragas for the foreseeable future? I don't know. We'll have to see whether she -- the rector gets reappointed.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Rich in Rockville, Md. Rich, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICHWell, first of all, thank you very much. This is a great program and I think we all owe a big debt to The Washington Post, in our area anyway, which did very thorough reporting. Every day I'd want to see what was the newest. What came out was that you had two different visions, strategic visions for the university. And, you know, at first, I thought that the rector, Helen Dragas, seemed like the bad one, the bad guy, the bad gal.
RICHAnd yet the more I thought about it, it seemed like both of them had failed to come together. There is a board, there is an executive. And really, they together have to come up with a strategic vision. It's not an either/or. They can't -- nobody's going to win that. So there was a great debate -- there's two different visions and yet the question still remains. How are they going to come together?
ANDERSONYeah. And, Rich, first of all, thank you for your comments on the Post. I really appreciate that. We're working it, still, as hard as we can. The point that you make about them working together is a really good one. They put on a show yesterday of looking to work together, moving forward. I'm watching with skepticism, very closely to see whether that's actually going to happen. What's clear in hindsight is that there was a big blind spot on Teresa Sullivan's part. She just didn't, from all accounts, see this erosion of support on her board and sort of move, you know, weeks or months in advance to try to get ahead of it.
ANDERSONAt the same time, of course, you know, you can't point fingers at the board and everybody has been. And Rector Dragas has been, herself, apologizing repeatedly, that the board has not been working with the President. And the President's allies point out that she had been in the process of developing a strategic plan and actually had submitted a document to the board. So, you know, it's kind of like they were talking past each other in some ways. You know, when will they actually talk together? I don't know.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Rich. We got an email from Mike in Fairfax who says he's a UVA alum. "University heads have been forced out in many past situations at many prominent institutions, but they did not occur in the social media context in which we now live. I keep wondering when leaders of the modern world, from Arab dictators to the members of the American board rooms, will learn that they cannot make drastic changes under cover of night and expect no backlash.
NNAMDIAs an alum, I took part in the virtual protest on Facebook, Twitter, et cetera. And I could not be more proud of those who took part in the face to face protest on the grounds. We have lots of challenges as a university and transparency and honest dialogue, rather than behind the scenes, top down corporate scheming as the solution." I'd like to hear, Nick Anderson, what you think about whether or not these social networks and the fact that we can communicate so rapidly now, do, in fact, have an effect on how these issues escalate?
ANDERSONWell, I think there's no doubt that the students of this university and the faculty play a significant role in the environment that facilitated Sullivan's return. Now, a lot of that was through Facebook and Twitter and the like. A lot of...
NNAMDIYeah, because the semester was over.
ANDERSONYeah, I mean, the university had been -- was in its quiet summer time routine. And yet, you know, folks were mobilizing and there were spontaneously -- we think spontaneous, you never know, but there were certainly some rather large gatherings on the lawn in front of the rotunda on repeated occasions at key moments. And in addition to that, just a real outpouring of mail and phone calls and emails to the governor, to legislators and to the board itself. So, you know, all of that played a role.
ANDERSONI think it's a natural thing these days to say, oh well in the age of social media you can't operate in the dark, as your listener pointed out. But I also think -- you know, let's not overstate that either. I think if that had happened ten years ago before Twitter, you know, probably a similar dynamic might have played out of sort of protest and shock at the surprising, you know, and sudden nature of the action.
NNAMDIWell, you do have to remember we forget that our mobile devices are computers but they're also telephones. And ten years ago there were those. And people would've probably used them.
NNAMDINick Anderson, thank you so much for joining us.
ANDERSONHappy to be here. Thanks for having the Post.
NNAMDINick Anderson is education editor at the Washington Post. We'll be following the Post coverage of the -- in the wake of what has happened at the University of Virginia in the future. Right now we're going to take a short break. When we come back, a crash course on cooling off for the summer with delicious drinks. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.