Home Education McDonnell as Calvin Coolidge: Will “Silent Bob” on UVA Turmoil Define Legacy

McDonnell as Calvin Coolidge: Will “Silent Bob” on UVA Turmoil Define Legacy

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( – promoted by lowkell)

by Paul Goldman

President Calvin Coolidge, who got to be the top dog due to a 1920 GOP Convention revolt by the delegates (forcing the then Massachusetts Governor onto Harding’s ticket as VP) had the nickname “Silent Cal.” He once said that if 10 issues are headed toward the chief executive’s office, 9 are never going to get to the Oval Office for a decision. So his operational approach was to wait to see which one required action. Why guess, he said, and fumble the ball on something that would never have actually required his taking action?

“Silent Bob” McDonnell is taking the “Keep Cool with Coolidge” approach (this was the 1924 GOP campaign slogan, rather clever) as regards the growing turmoil on the campus of UVA. “Silent Bob” is hoping the political hot potato will have cooled off by the time he has to announce his appointments to the UVA board.

The ouster of President Teresa Sullivan has made the state’s flagship public college the talk of Virginia — but not in a good way.

Right now, it is a majority of the Board of Visitors – it is not clear how many Board members would actually vote to fire Sullivan if put to a public vote – against the overwhelming majority of the rest of the UVA college community, not to mention the state’s educational folks everywhere. Sullivan is the “victim” of UVA Rector Helen Dragas, the “villain.”  

Governor McDonnell’s position on the matter – that he had nothing to do with the firing and that he will not interfere with what he sees as a personnel issue to be decided by the school’s management (the UVA Board) – has been stated and restated in recent days. Unlike every other previous Governor, he seems to relish the “not my job” mantra.

So we ask: Is this a wise course of action, or does McDonnell risk too much when compared to any likely gain?

At some point in the very near future, Mr. McDonnell will have to announce whether he will reappoint Ms. Dragas. She might ask not to be reappointed. But even if she takes him off that hook, you still have the mess on the ground.

This would be the job of the new board to fix, but it is hard to see how it would help McDonnell to keep his distance at that point. What is the upside for him? Does he want no role in picking the interim President to help fix the mess? So at the current rate, “Silent Bob” is headed for three possible options.

1) He reappoints Dragas. In this case, he would be handing over his legacy on education to Dragas. That doesn’t seem like the win-win play to me under any circumstances.

2) Dragas takes him off the hook by not seeking a second term. Politically, this is the best option right now for McDonnell, but it doesn’t demonstrate leadership on his part. It’s not the best option for Dragas, but better than getting canned (although not by much, probably).

3) McDonnell doesn’t reappoint Dragas. This will be taken as an implicit statement of his views on the UVA situation. But if Sullivan remains fired, what exactly is the public to make of a situation in which McDonnell refused to act for weeks, then acted long after the horse was out of the barn? This is doubly true if he then reverts to hands-off regarding the interim President.

If McDonnell doesn’t agree with Dragas, then how does he justify doing nothing when it counted? And if he agrees with Dragas, then why didn’t he leave her out there all along to fight for what he thinks is the right policy?

Either Sullivan should have been fired or not: to try and hide behind procedural complaints of one type or another, be they process, or personnel, seems a thin reed to me in the long run.

If the Governor believes Sullivan needed to be replaced for the good of the University, then Dragas did the right thing even if the process was bungled. If the Governor believes Sullivan should have been allowed to stay, then Dragas did the wrong thing even if she had followed the perfect process.

This isn’t a case where the process was illegal, or an illegal use of authority. So those who hide behind process complaints are hardly profiles in courage.

Sullivan was either the right person or not the right person to do what UVA needed done. Dragas had the courage of her convictions, but what are the Governor’s convictions?

“Silent Bob” strikes me as a posture that risks becoming riskier as the situation develops. “Silent Bob” may have temporary merits in a firestorm, but as the smoke clears, and everyone chooses sides, I think it is a hard place for a leader to be. Unless, of course, he doesn’t intend to lead.

And since I see this as a leadership moment – and a Governor’s legacy is based on what he did to lead – then I think McDonnell seriously risks his legacy here.