Sullivan's extension: And other things out of Dragas' control
After a student protest of its Board of Visitors was quashed last week, people across America are wondering what the heck is wrong with the University of Virginia.
All summer, UVA Rector Helen Dragas has been the black hat, the person accused of basing decisions on corporate buzzwords like "strategic dynamism," feeling panicked by news articles about online education, and even of violating the hallowed Honor Code when she pulled the trigger on a popular president. Now, it's President Teresa Sullivan's team enforcing what appears to be a premature clampdown.
I got a lot of mileage– or a least a hundred Facebook "likes" – out of the photo I snapped of the hand-written note I passed to Dragas, in the basement-level board meeting, shortly after I saw dozens of students intimidated out of the entrance of the Harrison Institute.
"Dear Rector," I wrote, "I just saw over 20 students, peaceably assembled, warned of possible arrest and/or 'termination from the university.' Why won't you acknowledge their wish to speak? Do you support this treatment?"
She wrote me back to say that, unaware of what had happened upstairs, she was referring my question to the president and the chief operating officer. So, during a meeting break, I queried both of those individuals– Teresa Sullivan and her new chief operating officer, Patrick Hogan. Each said they were too busy to talk, and follow-up phone calls were met with silence.
This is an odd shift in the narrative.
On November 8, members of the Sullivan administration, including V-P for Student Affairs Patricia Lampkin and her top deputy, Aaron Laushway, seemed to be going out of their way to steer students away from speaking.
"We were reminded as we went in that we weren't allowed to speak," said Dannah Dennis. "And that led us to believe," added Brianne Pitts, "that if we spoke we would be evicted from the room."
The warnings intensified upstairs in the entry hall where Laushway began wielding the University's so-called critical incident management plan, which gives administrators a statement to read to disperse students "in the event that a demonstration blocks access to University facilities or otherwise interferes with the normal operation of the University."
Isn't protest normal? John Whitehead thinks so.
"This is a University where free speech is supposed to flow," says the civil rights lawyer. "The University is supposed to be for the students."
In a next-day email, the University Police Department, which had 18 armed officers on the scene, took responsibility for initiating the ouster due to "a potential safety and fire hazard." But I witnessed neither blockage nor hazard. Instead, I saw protesters arrayed on either side of the entrance with passersby coming in and out of the building unmolested.
"I have offered you seven seats," said Laushway. The students said they'd be willing to stand, just as I and at least two photographers had done earlier in the meeting.
Next thing you know, Laushway, who declined to return a follow-up phone call, had– with the help of the Police– ordered them all out of the building.
"Eighteen cops," exclaims Whitehead. "That's for riots."
Here's why people who value the Constitutional concepts of free assembly and free speech are upset: the students weren't actually blocking the building– intentionally or otherwise. Moreover, at the time of the force-out, unless holding a placard counts, they weren't even protesting when Dean Laushway began reading them the riot act.
Their only protest was having the temerity to ask the dean what the consequences would be if they didn't leave. (I asked him the same thing.)
These are the same students, one of whom announced by bullhorn when their march began outside the steps of the Rotunda that they had no interest in getting arrested or jeopardizing their college careers. They just wanted a dialogue with the Board, and they were willing to do that by holding up their signs, as a handful did earlier in the board meeting.
"The University is supposed to foster a free flow of ideas," says Whitehead. "It's not there for the president, the professors, or the board. It's for the students."
Whitehead says he'd be happy to take the case of any student intimidated out of the Harrison Institute. And he said something else.
"That's the thing about students today– they're so nice," says Whitehead. "In the '60s, when I was in college, students were more vocal."
He's on to something, which leads to another strange part of this episode: the lack of any general student response.
As the protesters marched from the Rotunda to the Harrison Institute shortly after noon, I saw just a single show of support coming from the general student population.
"Yeah, solidarity!" yelled Amelie D'Urso as she stood alongside McCormick Road.
D'Urso was the exception. The hundred or so other students– perhaps diligently focused on their classes or just not clear what the fuss is all about because the brief presidential ousting happened on their summer break– simply stepped out of the brick walkway and made room for the protesters.
Alumni seem to care more deeply. Two of them, Jessica Arnold and Sarah Curtis-Fawley, class of 1999, approached the group along University Avenue to register their support.
Earlier this year, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for emails from alums mentioning the possible resignation of Rector Dragas. There were too many to count and so many that the beleaguered secretary to the Board, Susan Harris, felt compelled to apologize when forwarding them to the Board.
"If there is any concern that I am sending only messages supportive of President Sullivan," she wrote her then still-clueless board on June 17, "I assure you I have sent to you all of the messages I have received supporting the Board's position."
On Friday, November 9, the day after the protest, the board reconvened. Over on the Reform the UVA BOV Facebook page, a Virginia Beach alum wondered why there weren't a thousand students out there protesting what had happened and demanding change.
Some sort of change happened anyway. The board approved a formal personnel review process for its president, agreed to put a non-voting faculty member on each board committee that doesn't already have one, and voted that Friday that never again could a president's contract be modified or a resignation accepted without a full meeting of the board. Just a few minutes later, this particular president, Teresa Sullivan, was given a one-year extension of her contract that carries her term out to 2016.
I recently learned that in September, Sullivan met with Dragas in the office of Governor Bob McDonnell. Other than a confirmation from the governor's office that the meeting occurred, I don't know anything– certainly not what was discussed. Maybe it was just a friendly forum to keep working for the betterment of UVA. The more nefarious suggestion is that the education-reforming politician tried to broker a secret deal. Let's hope not; but with all lips sealed, people will speculate.
It seems that the UVA board learned some good lessons about transparency and constructive leadership over the summer. Let's hope that Sullivan's team learns them, too.
Hawes Spencer is the editor of the Hook.
Note: the printed version of this story wrongly had "November 9" in the caption; the information is correct in the above caption, that the students approached the Harrison Institute on November 8.This story is a part of the President Sullivan retakes the reins special.