EdMedia Commons Archive

The controversy at Mr. Jefferson’s university

Mr. Jefferson’s University was national news for two weeks as the institution grappled with the unexpected ouster, then reinstatement of its president, Teresa Sullivan. I’ve been asked to offer some sense of why there was so much opposition, especially from students, to Sullivan’s ouster.

For those who are not up to speed on the tale, several news organizations, notably The Washington Post, Charlottesville Daily Progress and Richmond Times-Dispatch have provided daily coverage of the story from the beginning, with reporters in Charlottesville. Other organizations sent in crews as the story grew. A wide range of news organizations weighed in on their editorial pages, including the Wall Street Journal. You can check their archives for accounts to follow the arc of the saga.

Sullivan was very visible on the campus. She continued her scholarship and taught classes, holding office hours. She was approachable. She posted videos, too. She also pushed back against requests that Virginia make deep cuts in what were perceived as “unprofitable” programs. She was seen as a successful leader and someone who could foster and build relationshps among departments and people who previously did not connect. She was addressing problems at the flagship and had sent a strategy memo to the board noting her concerns.

Sullivan had not done anything criminal or unethical, had not posted compromising photos on Facebook, had not placed the university in a bad position, had not cost the university money or reputation.

But the outrage stemmed from something beyond Sullivan’s reputation and visibility.

Students were angry about the secret nature of the process, which flew in the face of the trust and honor for which Univeristy of Virginia students and alumni (who call themselves “hoos”) take great pride. U.Va. prides itself on fostering an atmosphere of dialogue and open debate, modeled on its founder. They also believe strongly in a sense of community, and Sullivan had worked hard to become part of that community.

The Board offered very little as justification for the secretly engineered ouster. Sullivan diplomatically referred to differing philosophies. When the rector, Helen Dragas, finally offered a list of reasons, they were issues almost all public colleges and universities face. None could be solved overnight, or even in two years. That, and the lack of transparency and any discussion, fueled students’ and faculty members’ anger.

Sullivan would be the first to admit she does not know many of the U.Va. students. It’s a huge university with several colleges and a medical school. But she has embraced the institution and its philosophy. Students, faculty and alumni saw trust, honor and community under attack, and they pushed back. They also saw business interests attacking education, and that also angered them.

We should keep watching the story unfold.

For more, and to read student voices, see Jenna Johnson’s Washington Post zoomed story on the question of why students were so galvanized: http://wapo.st/LtPmHp

Share your thoughts. Why do you think students, faculty and alumni rallied to Sullivan and pushed for reinstatement? Do you think the reinstatement was wise? How should Sullivan and the board address the issues U.Va. faces? Has trust been damaged beyond repair? Let’s talk about it.


This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.