The Return of President Sullivan

After two weeks of sustained activism by faculty, students, and alumni at the University of Virginia, the Board of Visitors reinstated President Teresa Sullivan by unanimous vote. As I wrote last week, she had resigned after the Rector of the Board—Helen Dragas—covertly gathered votes to force a resignation. This sparked a backlash that consumed the U.Va community, and forced Dragas to back down from her previous position–as evidenced by the fact that she also voted to reinstate Sullivan.

The takeaway, for U.Va at least, is that Teresa Sullivan has far more power and support than she did at the beginning of this debacle. If she wants to take the University in a new direction, she has—for now at least—the necessary political capital. By contrast, the Board of Visitors has taken a tremendous political hit. Even after Dragas leaves her rectorship (it ends on July 1), the Board will have to work with students, faculty, and donors to rebuild its position and authority.

One last thing. For as much as this is good news for the University, it’s important to remember the extent to which this was representative of a national drive to corporatize higher education. At a rally for Sullivan this past Sunday, I saw a sign that listed other Virginia schools—William & Mary, James Madison University, Old Dominion University, etc.—and asked if they were next. The fact of the matter is that they are, along with many others. The problems and challenges in higher education still exist, and there are still many people who want to make privatization the norm for public schooling.


Thank goodness, the good guys win one. But could this have happened at a less well-known university? I'm afraid not.

As an earlier article observed, Sullivan's ouster was a symptom of a pandemic in American culture, the mindless idolatry of the marketplace, the conviction that being a business executive qualifies you to run everything. Remember when George Bush touted himself as the "MBA President," and began restoring the honor and dignity of the Presidency by demanding that everyone wear suits and ties to White House meetings, and that they arrive exactly on time? He made it clear that he meant it by locking Colin Powell out of the room at one of his first Cabinet meetings, exposing a far more experienced man to ridicule by his peers.

Well, Bush was a man after the UVA board of Visitors' hearts. He too believed in "strategic dynamism" instead of "strategic planning," and therefore plunged into a war in Iraq without thinking the issue through, obtaining good intelligence, allowing the armed forces to engage in war games ahead of time, or even taking the advice of more experienced military men about how many troops were needed. Meanwhile, he outsourced everything else to private enterprise, replaced career attorneys with dependable yes-men in the Justice department, and used the Department of Homeland Security as a way to reward donors and cronies with sinecure appointments. As a result, we got the botched response to Katrina and the crash of '08. And has the U.S. learned anything at all from the Bush years? Well, Mitt Romney is at this very moment running for President on the strength of his business experience, and Donald Trump is loudly declaring himself "a pretty smart guy" because he has (as he claims) managed to make millions of dollars, thereby obliging us to take him seriously as an authority on things like birth certificates. If we fall for this again we will really and truly get the government we deserve.

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