During the weeks of turmoil following UVA President Teresa Sullivan’s ouster, Rector Helen Dragas promised the University of Virginia community that the Board of Visitors had not, and would not, play a role in directing academic courses to be eliminated or reduced. “These matters belong to the faculty,” she said. But e-mails released under the Freedom of Information Act between Dragas and other administrators show that the rector has her own opinions on which classes are and are not acceptable, or, more specifically, palatable to potential donors.
Last November, Dragas sent an e-mail to Sullivan, Provost John Simon, and former Vice Rector Mark Kington with a subject line reading “tough headline.” The body of the e-mail featured a link to an article posted by the Foundry, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. Leslie Grimard, who also authored a story earlier in the year about the “disproportion between liberals and conservatives” at universities across the country, wrote an article entitled “The Lady Gaga-fication of Higher Ed.” The post questioned the credibility of four “top-tier universities” that offered courses on Lady Gaga, including UVA.
Simon responded to Dragas’ e-mail with a lengthy description and defense of the class in question. He explained that “GaGa for Gaga: Sex, Gender, and Identity” was a section of a freshman writing class intended to encourage critical thinking for argumentative essays.
“While not a conventional choice for a topic, the various offerings try to present a wide range of themes,” Simon wrote in the e-mail. “One of the reasons for a range of topics is to engage students in writing about topics that interest them.”
Dragas responded, thanking Simon for his explanation, but didn’t seem convinced that the class was up to UVA standards.
“I appreciate that the course subject can be defended—but the title of the course and the headline of the article probably aren’t helping justify funding requests from parents, taxpayers, and legislators,” she wrote.
Dragas went on to write that “there must be some internal arbiter of what is appropriate.” She didn’t propose what that should be, but she warned Simon that people would make up their own minds. “Those people can influence our future. We should be mindful of that, in my opinion,” she wrote.
The conversation ended there, Simon said, but he added that if a line does exist between the Board and academics at UVA, professors should not have to be concerned about donors and University finances.
Christa Romanosky, who created the course in 2010, said she uses one rule when teaching: “If the students aren’t engaged, it’s the instructor’s job to get them interested.” Romanosky said the class easily could have been called “Elements of Sexuality and Gender in the 21st Century,” but she chose the controversial title to catch her students’ attention, and it worked.
Romanosky said donors are key to university success, but her students are her number one priority.
“They’re paying for an education and deserve to have serious and engaging courses, regardless of whether it might ruffle a few feathers on a few very conservative donors,” she said.