6.19.12 There’s no sign of revolution in Charlottesville as I write this. It’s a rainy, off-season Monday morning. No tanks in the streets. No crowds gathering. In fact, the streets are mostly empty, what you’d expect from a university town in June. The blogosphere, however, is roiling with revolutionary language in the wake of UVA President Teresa Sullivan’s ouster by the Board of Visitors, and a line of battle has emerged. Faculty on one side, and the Board, presumably with the support of influential alumni like Paul Tudor Jones II, on the other. Jones wrote a letter to the Daily Progress recently in which he expressed his support for the Board’s decision, saying “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.” After a Faculty Senate meeting Sunday night, one participant said, “This could be our Arab spring. It’s an opportunity.”
I took Robert Darnton’s course on the French Revolution in college and remember being struck by the way he drew out the layers of conflict in a pyramid: the tectonic social convulsions of the failed Ancien Regime at the base; a war of ideas about the nature of humanity emerging from Colonial conflicts (see Jefferson) in the middle; the momentum of radicalization and court intrigue at the tip. I didn’t do particularly well in the course but it made an impression. Everyone likes a revolution in which heightened ideas motivate people to grandiose self-sacrifice in the name of forward progress. No one likes a revolution that acts like an earthquake.
UVA is much smaller than the public institutions it calls its peers and can’t compete with the salaries offered by leading private ones. The University has done all it can to mitigate those disadvantages by raising the cost of out-of-state tuition and pouring private resources into its profitable professional schools, but the college is still suffering. Sullivan’s job was to solve the problem, and, in early May, she provided the Board with her road map, which invoked Jefferson and relied on a contemporary vision for the Academical Village. The plan, succinctly put, was to close the school’s “reputation gap” through a renewed focus on faculty development using a three-pronged approach of raising pay, implementing a better recruitment system, and encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration to leverage talent. The Board—or at least some of its members—had already decided to get rid of her. They want to see strategic dynamism, the will to make dramatic programmatic cuts, a financial model for success.
Nearly everybody who publicly weighed in on the subject during the past week has invoked the name of the University’s Founding Father, but he has no answers to this crisis. The Board hired a faculty-focused reformer, then got rid of her through a private putsch. We’re all waiting for an explanation, a revelation, or a revolution. —Giles Morris