Home Education Coy Barefoot on the UVA “Slush Fund” Controversy: “Wither the Jeffersonian Dream?”

Coy Barefoot on the UVA “Slush Fund” Controversy: “Wither the Jeffersonian Dream?”

752
1
SHARE

The following is a super-smart post, prompted by this story in the Daily Progress (“UVa rector says meeting did not violate law”), and cross-posted here with the permission of Coy Barefoot from his Facebook page. 

For those of you not familiar with Coy Barefoot, among many other things he’s “an award-winning and best-selling author…[and] a member of the adjunct faculty at the University of Virginia where he teaches classes about the life of Thomas Jefferson, the history of the University, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the early American Republic.” Given all that, it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s totally on top of what’s going on at UVA these days. Again, I think he nails it in his Facebook post, including his reference to “Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities” (see video below).

As for former UVA Rector Helen Dragas, I suspect (sad to say) that Barefoot is correct when he charges that she has an “agenda to assail UVA and the state of higher education in general— and her leadership in what was nationally referred to as the ‘Campus Coup’ of 2012.”

With that, check out what Barefoot has to say on the current state of affairs at UVA, one of the greatest public universities in the world, with a storied history, but also the subject of politically-charged and agenda-laden acrimony in recent years.

P.S. I’ll probably cross-post another one of Coy Barefoot’s Facebook posts – this one entitled, “NO SLUSH FUND” – later today or tomorrow. That one’s stirring up a LOT of discussion…

WITHER THE JEFFERSON DREAM?

Alumni and friends of the University of Virginia, University of Virginia School of Law, UVA College of Arts & Sciences Alumni, UVA Parent Network, UVA Health System should really be dialing in to this story, for many reasons. Let me take a quick moment to get you up to speed. Though she is no longer on the UVA Board of Visitors, former Rector Helen Dragas continues to lead a very public effort (some have used the word, assault), against the University’s governance. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch recently reminded us, Dragas “will always be remembered for her role in the board’s sudden decision to fire — and then, after intense backlash, re-hire — President Teresa A. Sullivan in 2012.”

Dragas ignited another summer firestorm with an Opinion piece published in the Washington Post on July 6— interestingly, exactly two days shy of the four-year anniversary of the day she and BOV Vice Rector Mark Kington met privately with President Sullivan and told her she had 24 hours to resign or she would be terminated (that meeting took place in Sullivan’s office at 5p on July 8, 2012). In her recent WaPo commentary, Dragas accused President Sullivan’s administration of operating a secret $2.3 billion “slush fund.” (sources tell me this is literally not a truthful description of the Strategic Investment Fund, which is a common financial tool of every major University). Members of the University Administration have been called to respond before the Virginia House Appropriations Committee on September 19.

Helen Dragas has also fashioned a new role for herself as the Chair of the Board of a new non-profit, Partners for Affordable Excellence (partners4edu.org), which was founded to “catalyze and accelerate change at America’s premiere public research universities.” According to the website, the political advocacy group “will launch its work with a unique focus on governance. Boards of trustees should be publicly accountable for delivering affordable excellence that best serves state taxpayers and students. We will work with Governors and state elected leaders to create model accountability legislation that clarifies these responsibilities.” Working with legislators is the key to understanding the approach— making changes from Richmond– top down. This is based on the organization’s founding belief that “The chances of fixing the system from inside seem increasingly unlikely.”

Dragas’ agenda to assail UVA and the state of higher education in general— and her leadership in what was nationally referred to as the “Campus Coup” of 2012— is explored in a new documentary, “Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities.” In its review, Huffington Post noted that the film “zeroes in on the clashes that are now taking place at public universities around the country, a story the mainstream press has largely ignored. The introduction outlines the high ideals that inspired the men and women who founded these colleges back in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and then contrasts this original mission with the cynical market fundamentalism that some of the key players espouse who are currently seeking to “reform” these institutions.

“The film explains the contours of the free-market ideology that is behind the policy prescriptions for “disrupting” and “reforming” public universities, which originates in think tanks such as the CATO Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, and dozens of lesser known groups financed by wealthy donors, including the web of organizations that receive money from the Koch brothers. Starving the Beast unpacks the process whereby public universities have been de-funded in recent years, which has contributed to driving up student tuition (along with student debt), and has led administrators to squeeze “efficiencies” from their institutions by freezing faculty salaries, hiring large numbers of adjunct professors, and slashing programs. Well-financed right-wing groups that lobby hard for budget cuts and lower taxes create fiscal conditions that starve funding for public universities. They then become the loudest critics of the universities and demand a radical overhaul of the colleges’ entire mission that fits their ideological mold.”

As I see it, the takeaway here is that what is happening now at UVA is only part of a much larger, national story— an ideological struggle that has put the entire future of higher education (and in particular, the work of publicly supported colleges and universities) in the cross-hairs of a motivated, financial elite. This elite has sought to disrupt, reform and ultimately to control the fundamental institutions on which our democratic constitutionalism depends (government, the courts, journalism and the press, and now education). HuffPo observes that “They’ve dropped any sense that the public university plays a fundamental role in the quality of life in their states, or enhances young people’s understanding of their responsibilities as citizens. They don’t even see “students” anymore, only “customers” or “clients.” They want to steer public universities away from inquiries about the meaning of life, justice, or beauty in this world, which they see as nothing more than “left-liberal” claptrap. Their “vision” (if one can call it that) is to get rid of academic tenure, phase out the liberal arts and humanities departments, and narrowly focus “education” on the attainment of vocational skills. They apparently want a workforce of trained automatons who toil in silence and never ask big questions or challenge authority as young people are encouraged to do in university settings.”

As I’ve always explained it to my students, the University of Virginia was founded to be the “insurance policy” for the American Revolution. Unlike nearly every university created up to that time, UVA would not be about serving the interests of a particular church or faith, a monarchy or financial elite, or warlords. It would serve the interests of democracy. It was based on a truly revolutionary vision to provide future generations of CITIZENS with the knowledge, the critical thinking, and the inspiration to push back against any force in society that would profit off of the suppression of human and civil rights— to push back against the efforts of elites to rule over others. A University, Thomas Jefferson wrote, should be an “incubator where the future guardians of the rights and liberties of their country may be endowed with science and virtue, to watch and preserve the sacred deposit.”

It is something of an open secret in political circles in Virginia that Helen Dragas intends to make a run for Lieutenant Governor at some point— and then if successful, a campaign for Governor. Something to think about. This story is on-going…I encourage anyone who cares for UVA to please follow this story very closely. Cheers.

  • Also interesting, Coy responds to a comment by Ben Tribbett (“Since when do comments need an ‘error’ to be apologist for bad behavior? That aside, the error is with your defense of a fund of reserves for one university that is larger than every other Virginia university or college combined- and even larger than all of them combined with the Commonwealth’s reserves itself!”):

    1. “bad behavior.” you’ll have to establish that allegation. seems the legislators who called UVA before them this past week in Richmond found no indications of any “bad behavior.” and I’m not aware of anyone at UVA who thought there was anything even remotely approaching “bad behavior.” concluding, as the legislators did, by saying that UVA “could have been” more transparent about what they were doing, is not at all the same thing as saying they were guilty of “bad behavior.” what’s the “bad behavior” then that I’m supposedly apologizing for? and for the record, I count myself among those critics of the University’s unnecessary silence and lack of transparency, and have said so MANY times in this forum and on the air as well. as political operatives like yourself understand all too well, if you don’t tell your own story, someone is going to tell it for you. I wish this was something UVA as an institution better appreciated. I honestly think the whole Dragas affair from a few years ago made the BOV and administration so gun shy about being in the media, that now they err in the other direction.

    2. making statements in “error” vs stating known facts matters very much when the assertion is being made that one is “apologizing” (ie running cover) for “bad behavior.” the implicit assertion then is that either the apologist is wrong and in error about things (and therefore needs to be shown where one is wrong) or that one is intentionally covering up or slanting or downplaying, in your words “bad behavior.” I know I haven’t lied. I know I haven’t covered anything up that I’ve known about. So then, the logical question I would have asked: where am I wrong then? I repeat, what have I said that is in error about any of these issues.

    3. you wrote that “the error is with your defense of a fund of reserves for one university that is larger than every other Virginia university or college combined.” I am not defending a fund of reserves. I am not an accountant or an attorney. I am a journalist, a historian, and I am honored to teach students at the University. I am not in fact defending anything. I am repeatedly pointing to truths and the facts which support them. that’s all. Helen Dragas made very public and damning allegations that the University administration was being secretive, underhanded, nefarious (fill in whatever word you want to use), by operating a “slush fund” (her words), a fund it was keeping under wraps from those in Richmond. As I knew right away from sources, and as legislators in Richmond concluded this past week, there is NO TRUTH to those allegations. none. And I agree with them that the “bad behavior” we’ve seen demonstrated in this story has more to do with Dragas’ public campaign against this administration than it does with any accounting procedures by the University.

    4. You conclude Ben that “error” and “bad behavior” can be found in the fact that UVA aggregated a number of pre-existing strategic funds into one overall fund (because that is all that happened here) and that because that fund is so much bigger than any other similar fund at a Virginia college, that therefore there just must be foul play at work. Huh? How is this an argument for “bad behavior” when in truth it is a sign of a constellation of facts that are the opposite of “bad”: 1. UVA is adept at raising funds. 2. alumni and friends of the University are eager to support UVA 3. UVA has some skilled professionals who are in charge of its money. I could use the same argument you’ve used to assert that anyone who is good with their money and has more than their neighbor is guilty of something nefarious.

    5. all this said, I agree very much with Helen Dragas that a more substantive conversation SHOULD be taking place in Virginia about
    1. transparency at the University (beginning with letting the News Office actually “do” news)
    2. making UVA more affordable to in-state students
    3. making UVA more accessible to in-state students
    4. determining whether UVA exists to serve the Commonwealth OR whether it exists to compete on a level with the private, elite Harvard and Princetons of the world that recruit elite students from throughout the globe — focusing on the state and the world are two different things. one assumes the University could do both without blinking. but compromises are made whenever one option is emphasized over another. and that is something we should be talking about.