6.26.12 By the time this paper comes out, the information in it may be out of date. That’s always true as I write this column, but this week it carries extra weight, since the UVA Board of Visitors could vote Tuesday afternoon to reinstate President Teresa Sullivan. The news cycle on this story has been a challenge for us as a weekly publication. The major events have played out on Mondays and Tuesdays and our print deadline is Monday afternoon, which meant we had to move our stories online, where, I’d venture to guess, many of our readers don’t look for them. I got a pointed letter from someone at UVA wondering how I had the nerve to put Thomas Jefferson on the cover when they were experiencing a revolution. I told her about the deadline and she said, well, O.K., I guess, but you hedged in your editorial last week too. What do you really think about all this?
As a news person and someone who didn’t go to UVA, I have a particular perspective. Almost the very same thing just happened at the University of Oregon, where my sister went to graduate school. It created a temporary outcry, and then things went back to normal. Sort of. Universities are like frigates, and they don’t turn quickly. Two years isn’t enough time for change, two weeks in the summer is nothing. I’m not an excitable person, or someone who deals in outrage. There is nothing new under the sun. But do I see something happening at UVA that is really important.
Over the past few weeks the Dragas-gate story has moved on the new media cycle, constantly and quickly, even though, at times, very little information of record has moved with it. Never before have I seen more unattributed sources, articles based on deductive reasoning, or stories referencing other people’s reporting referencing other people’s reporting. The mainstream media fed the social media engine, and alumni all over the country tuned in as Helen Dragas failed to explain her actions. The resulting groundswell of support for Terry Sullivan may not have been, as one faculty member suggested, an “Arab spring,” but it was a similar phenomenon. Information, miraculously multiplied, rattled a seat of power.
I still believe that had Dragas and the Board explained their logic from the start, they would have gotten away with what they did. They may still. But there are larger implications in this story than who leads UVA. Our society is rapidly becoming an oligarchy of wealth. Rich people with gubernatorial appointments hold sway in all manner of spheres. Teaching faculty, like reporters, are part of an underpaid and disempowered intellectual class that generally prefers conversation and outrage to action. That said, if you piss us off, the new media revolution allows us to create a roar to deafen the heavens. The fact that a developer with a business degree would have the audacity to change course on behalf of one of the nation’s oldest public universities was outrageous. The reality that decision-makers like Dragas, increasingly isolated, are making important calls based on input instead of buy-in is terrifying. Three cheers for the UVA faculty for standing together and demanding better.—Giles Morris