Home Education The Education of Famed UVA Professor Larry Sabato

The Education of Famed UVA Professor Larry Sabato

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by Paul Goldman

The UVA Board of Visitors has just given the school’s most famed political scientist – Dr. Larry Sabato – a real education. UVA rector Helen Dragas is a businesswoman who has never written a word on politics. But she has now “put on a clinic” for a guy who has written dozen of books on politics, whose “Crystal Ball” publication is widely quoted around the country, and who has been confidentially giving thumbs up or thumbs down to candidates and campaigns for several decades.

On paper, Ms. Dragas, who runs her father’s business building homes in Tidewater, is no match politically for Professor Sabato, who I first met on the sands of Virginia Beach during a discussion of his idol, famed civil rights advocate and anti-Byrd politician Henry Howell.

As I have said many times, I couldn’t think of a better person in the world to teach my son’s introductory course in politics, or guide him through an academic career. If there is a more dedicated fully tenured professor with Larry’s credentials to high school students or college frosh who like politics, that individual has been in hiding for some many years. Larry Sabato embodies what is great about the world of academics and UVA.

But he, his students, indeed all the professors of political science at UVA and around Virginia, just had their Demi Moore moment. In the great movie A Few Good Men (taken from the Broadway play), Ms. Moore plays a lawyer who makes a rookie mistake during a court-martial proceeding. This is her first time in the high-stakes world where you either lose or win: there is no middle ground. Ms. Moore’s character doesn’t understand the mistake.

“It’s the difference between paper law and trial law” explains a co-counsel.

Professor Sabato has written millions of words on politics, had his views over these many decades repeated hundreds of thousands of times,  taught tens of thousands of students, and opined on what it takes to make real change in Virginia countless times. He even publishes his “Crystal Ball” on politics.

But he and the other academic experts, along with their students and ex-students, proved no match for Ms. Dragas. The same for the other alleged savvy politicians on the UVA Board of Visitors – I will save them the embarrassment of naming them – who were telling the media anonymously they had not been part of Ms. Dragas’ efforts to oust Teresa Sullivan.

When push came to shove, they proved to be all Talk and no Walk.                

Those of us who have actually been in the arena, – not the John Paul Jones Arena at UVA to cheer from the stands or play kid games on the field but on the field of real politics trying to make real change for generations to come – understand that anyone can Talk The Talk. But to make real change, you have to play in the real world and overcome the real forces out there pushing back against you.

It looks easy from the bleachers, but no one ever changed anything on paper. It is all about WALK, not TALK.

We remember the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence the way we do because they had WALK, NOT TALK. Change the outcome, and it is likely no signed copy of  Mr. Jefferson’s handiwork might even exist.    

“All men are created equal” are very likely the five most powerful words ever streamed together in the English language. Yet not because the phrase stated a truth believed at the time by most of those who risked their lives, fortunes, and honor to achieve freedom from the British.

But we won for this reason: We were led by individuals who were “all in.” They weren’t engaged in some parlor room “battle” over academic concepts, a grand game of trivial pursuit. They couldn’t look at their watches and say: “We talked a good game. But it is late, time to go home, we can pick it up at another time.” As Benjamin Franklin said: We either hang together or we hang separately.

That is the difference between paper law and real law; the difference between paper politics and real politics.

Helen Dragas was “all in.” So were those backing her play.  She had a vision for her university, and was willing to be seen as the “Dragon Lady” – even give up her seat on the board – to be cast into UVA academic “purgatory” for all time as the price for getting her way.

Whatever you want to say about Ms. Dragas and her posse, they came to the OK Corral prepared to die with their spurs on.

The Dragas forces wanted Teresa Sullivan out. They never offered a cogent reason; it is possible they never had one.  Dragas’ posse – backed by some very powerful people who have hidden in the shadows – adopted an ABS posture – Anybody but Sullivan.

This is not unusual: indeed, the next President of the United States will be elected by either the ABR voters – Anybody But Romney – or ABO partisans – Anybody But Obama.

Bottom line: Dragas and crew were ready to win or leave. Teresa Sullivan was not.

That’s is actually the first lesson in politics, the one that should be taught on the first day of the first class of the frosh year.  

One thing I always admired about Henry Howell – and we had some bitter arguments – is that he was an “all in” guy. He gave everything he had to get African-Americans, women, Jews, Catholics, you name it equal rights in Virginia. He took more personal abuse than you can imagine. In retrospect, I never quite appreciated that and probably – no definitely – didn’t give him the respect he had EARNED from me.

I can’t change that now. In a small way, I do hope some of the work I did to help Doug Wilder break the color line in state politics redeems me some. But if not, it’s my fault.

Henry and Doug did teach a valuable lesson which allows me to say this without fear of being proven wrong: Teresa Sullivan is not the person of UVA mythology being created. Not even close.

Read her speech yesterday; it is all there if you want to see it. As the saying goes, it isn’t the size of the dog in the fight that matters, it is the size of the fight in the dog.

At the moment of truth, Teresa Sullivan was ALL TALK, but NO WALK.

Think about it: Sullivan claims to have been shocked by Dragas blind siding her with the famed “Godfather” option — it can either be your signature or your blood in the resignation letter, your choice, the Board wants you out, but I will give you the chance to resign and save face. Sullivan in her speech suggests this is a battle between two fundamentally different visions of higher education in the future, the choice critical not unique to UVA as she knows.

Sullivan postures herself as the true agent of positive change, and Dragas et al as actually the enemy of such change.

In sum, Sullivan spends a long time making the case why she is right about the future of UVA, and  why her detractors are wrong.

The Faculty Senate backs Sullivan big time, demanding Dragas resign. A mass of students, wildly supportive and presumed to speak for most of the UVA population, likewise see her as the champion of the University against the usurpers.

Professor Sabato and others are willing to put their reputations on the line to back her, to join a great showdown over the future of a great University. They are willing to draw a line in the sand.

In the real world of politics, this is often how it goes: change isn’t an academic treatise or Moot Court discussion, it is done in real time with real people who “bring it”, warts and all, to moment of truth.

“Truth crushed to Earth will rise” said Dr. King. But someone has to have the guts to plant that truth. Otherwise it can’t rise.

As I say: Whatever you think about Ms. Dragas, she has the courage of her convictions. Can we really say that about the other side? For now, this is what we do know: Teresa Sullivan refused to fight for her job. There was plenty of TALK, but no WALK.

That’s the thing about politics. The Teresa Sullivans of the world are articulate when it comes to the plight of so many beaten down by the system. They can say all the right words, back all the right causes, contribute all the right amounts of money. And then they wonder why nothing changes like they think it should.

Teresa Sullivan doesn’t need the money she will get from UVA in whatever settlement she knows they will have to make for breaking her contract. Her husband doesn’t need the money. She has a tenured position on the faculty of UVA, he is lion at the law school.

So they have all the money, all the support, all the reputation few get in a lifetime. Moreover, they have the type of public support to be an agent of change that even fewer get in a century.

There is absolutely nothing Ms. Dragas and posse can possibly do to hurt Ms. Sullivan on any of these fronts.

Based on Ms. Sullivan’s own speech, the future of UVA, and the future of higher education in America, is at a cross-roads. Yet she refuses to fight for what she claims is right.

The reason Larry Sabato idolized Henry Howell wasn’t because Henry had the telegenic look, the pleasing personality, the super wealth, the ability to do little things and make it seem like something big, all the attributes glorified by today’s politics. None of that. Rather, the reason Larry loved Henry Howell is the same reason the segregationists and others hated him: because Henry Howell was the real deal.

This isn’t to say that Howell was a perfect guy, far from it. He could be exasperating, he could be personally mean at times, he was hardly the liberal claimed by his detractors.

No, he wasn’t a lot of things, but he was this: When it came to fighting for Virginia’s future, Henry Howell was “all in.” He couldn’t be bought, he couldn’t be bullied, he couldn’t be sold a bill of goods, and he was there in the foxhole in the morning no matter the forces aligned against you as the sun rose over the battlefield. He was all WALK.

I am not an expert on what is happening at UVA. But I am an expert on what is not happening.

Sullivan, Sabato and others have made this a seminal moment for the state’s flagship University. Even former President John Casteen has suggested as much in terms of state education policy. So they have drawn that line in the sand made famous by Colonel Travis or I suppose the legend of The Alamo. No one is suggesting that Sullivan, Sabato, et. al  walk the plank. But at the same time: IF ALL THERE IS IS TALK, BUT NOT WALK, then what are we to make of it?

Just what we always have: If you really want to make change, if you are really willing to fight the forces of racism or sexism or whatever, you can only count on the people who are on the field with you. This is not to suggest you are better than anyone else, far from it. It is just a statement of real Politics 101.

Give Dragas and company their due for understanding politics at the gut level. Dragas knew she could have lost the fight. But she read her opponents perfectly.

Teresa Sullivan may have had a million reasons not to fight for her job. But if she wasn’t going to fight for it, then she owed her supporters the truth from jump street. If the privileged – with nothing to lose except money they don’t need – aren’t willing to risk it, then what hope is there for those who can’t afford to lose what little they have?

Teresa Sullivan had her chance to be a real leader: but that would have required giving something up apparently. She had her Demi Moore moment. So did many at UVA these past days.

Whatever you want to say about Ms. Dragas, she is the one you want on your side in the foxhole when the game gets serious.

All the dominoes have yet to fall. So the winners and losers could look differently soon enough. Just not at this moment.