Does Sullivan’s Return Mark a New Era in VA College Governance?


    by Paul Goldman

    Professor Sabato has given the UVA Board of Visitors good advice: unless there is a dramatic change in the current situation between now and Tuesday’s special meeting, their only viable option at this point, like it or not, is to rehire Teresa Sullivan as UVA President.

    In 1946, famed featherweight boxing champion Willie Pep was alleged to have won the third round of a title fight without throwing a punch. Here in 2012, Ms. Sullivan is posed to win her title back without throwing a punch. If Mr. Jefferson’s revolution was started by the shot heard around the world, this second revolution started at Mr. Jefferson’s University seems likely to end with the UVA Board of Visitors laying down its weapons.

    General Grant allowed Robert E. Lee’s defeated soldiers to return home with their weapons. Ms. Sullivan would come back to the President’s chair facing a totally disarmed BOV that is likely to defer to her for the foreseeable future.

    In 1952, D-Day legend Dwight Eisenhower didn’t officially declare for President until after winning the New Hampshire primary. His victory, at least publicly, had been orchestrated by private individuals united under an organization named Citizens for Eisenhower. This hasn’t happened since.

    Until now, although admittedly a contest for a different Presidency, Ms. Sullivan has not publicly stood before the microphones and asked for the job of UVA president. Instead, her “campaign” has been based on a groundswell of support spurred by private individuals – in this case the UVA faculty, alums and current student body – without Ms. Sullivan’s official, public blessing.

    When General Douglas MacArthur was forced out of the Philippine Islands, he famously said “I Shall Return.” It took many months of fighting and the might of the American military. In stark contrast, Ms. Sullivan is set to make her return to the UVA president’s post before the ink is even dry on her ouster.

    As a practical matter, Ms. Sullivan would take back her job with more power – both positional and moral – than any other college president in the state’s history, as best I can tell. Perhaps the country. For the foreseeable future, it is doubtful the UVA Board of Visitors – no matter the composition – would want to risk getting into a fight with her on any policy matter.

    Rather, the power of challenging Ms. Sullivan on policy matters has shifted, for the time being, to the faculty Senate, and less so to the student body along with the alumnae. As long as Ms. Sullivan keeps those forces on her side, the UVA Board – made up of some of the state’s most influential citizens – has been reduced to a potted plant.

    Of course, Ms. Sullivan could refuse all entreaties for her to resume her presidency. But this seems unlikely at this point, although like any good soap opera, the script can have sudden twists and turns. Assuming she wants the job, however, the Las Vegas bookies are making her a bigger favorite than Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes in 1973.

    Which raises the question: How much could a new UVA governing coalition – the President, the Faculty Senate, and an engaged alumni/student body – remake Virginia higher education? I believe there is a chance this could mark a new era.

    For starters, it may help spur a rethinking on the part of governors, the General Assembly, and voters as to the type of person who should be appointed to college governing boards. The influence of UVA on the state’s higher education system should not be underestimated. To the extent this new governing coalition gets positive reviews, it will pressure the candidates for governor in 2013, and current Governor Bob McDonnell also, in terms of discussing their philosophy for making these board appointments.

    Thus, if McDonnell seizes the moment to break with tradition in his next round of UVA appointments, it could set in motion in a change that the candidates for Governor may have to endorse.

    Second, the UVA fiasco in terms of public relations and governance should not cause us to overlook the fundamental policy differences at the heart of much of the Dragas vs. Sullivan debate. As the old adage goes, victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.

    Dragas went “all in” to get Sullivan. Having failed, she would likely do herself a favor on Tuesday night to propose bringing the president back with a show of unanimity from the Board. As a general matter in politics, when someone is universally seen as being “down,” it hurts you to be seen as “kicking someone when they are down.” Thus, beating up on Dragas at this moment will not help anyone with the public; unless, of course, she refuses to accept reality.

    Dragas’ best play, as painful as it may be, is precisely what Professor Sabato suggests — make a virtue out of a necessity. As I understand her position, she believes she made the “the right choice but did it the wrong way,” or words to that effect. But the fact of political life is what Sabato told her: In the end, Sullivan got you.

    Dragas would be wise at this point to be seen as a force for reconciliation. In a sense, the very UVA culture that her actions so inflamed may offer her a way to start getting her reputation back. Dragas has to assume her chances of being reappointed are slim and none. Thus, Tuesday could be Dragas’  last chance to be seen on the front pages of the Commonwealth in a favorable light for a long time. She needs to take it, not snub it.

    I ask her: What do Ms. Sullivan or any of the anti-Dragas forces get by stumping on your political grave?

    The same for the future of college governance in Virginia. As a matter of public policy, Ms. Sullivan would return to the UVA presidency with huge expectations, probably higher than any previous college head in Virginia history. It is the fascinating ying and yang of politics: the losers now can be the winners later, and vice versa; the times they are a changing as Bob Dylan put it years ago.

    So one has to often struggle to try and figure out the permanent impact of any such event short of its effect on the fortunes of the personalities involved.

    My conclusion: College governance in Virginia is not likely to revert back to its current state. Ever. The toothpaste is out of the tube. The 2013 gubernatorial race will feature two candidates who will promise certain reforms in terms of choosing members of college boards. It is also likely that Governor McDonnell and the Republicans in the General Assembly will see the wisdom in this approach. Once the implied equation for college board representation shifts, it will stay that way for awhile.

    The changes need not be great to have, over time, significant influence. Appointments to the State Board of Higher Education will likewise come under review in this regard.  Most importantly, the intense statewide focus on UVA has raised the issue of higher education – and how to pay for what the educational community says is required – to a new relevance in the 2013 election.

    Readers of this space know I have been saying for months that the issue of education will decide the next Governor of Virginia. When you add college education issues to the growing concerns about K-12, the power of this issue has now only increased once again.

    While I would be surprised to see an education reformer declare for Governor, it wouldn’t be a surprising to see one throw his or hat into the ring for Lt. Governor in a few months. The issue is likely to be part of the presidential campaign as well. Depending on how it plays out, the candidate could come from the right or left. On this topic, there is room for a far-ranging discussion at the state level in my view.


    Sign up for the Blue Virginia weekly newsletter

    Previous articleHelen Dragas, UVA, and Hill & Knowlton
    Next articleNew TV ad targets Kaine’s fiscal policies with bogus claims and flagrant misrepresentations