Saving UVA: Start by getting rid of term “Rector”


    by Paul Goldman

    The root of the UVA mess can now be put into one word: “rectoritis.” Okay, it is a literary word, made up by yours truly. But it comes from the word “Rector.” As in UVA Rector Helen Dragas, the current top banana on the school’s Board of Visitors. Of all the states in the union, Virginia appears to be the one most addicted to the term “Rector.” Presumably the term Rector – which comes from the Latin meaning “to rule” –   was brought to the English colonies by our former rulers. Yet they don’t use the term in England any more. However it started, we in Virginia loved it.  

    Of all the top-ranked public universities, UVA is by far the highest one to use the term “Rector.” Most have either abandoned the title or never thought it appropriate in the first place.  

    Presumably it was adopted back in the early 1800’s when Mr. Jefferson, no longer President and back in Charlottesville, pleaded with the Virginia General Assembly to begin funding his educational vision. Given TJ’s political clout, they tossed him a bone, at least this is how TJ took it, complaining the legislators were missing the point and the need and were extremely shortsighted.

    The $15,000 they gave to UVA in 1819 would purchase around $275,000 in 2012. This is considerably less than the total political contributions made by UVA Board Members to candidates for Governor. Perhaps if Mr. Jefferson had played his politics better, he could have received a larger chunk of state money. Or at least an appointment to the Board.

    But let me ask: Surely, after nearly 200 years, we can at least get a name change right? Indeed, let me go farther: the continued use of the term “Rector” all these years may have played an unwitting role in the current fiasco. Sooner or later, someone was going to take the “to rule” thing a little too literarily.

    Indeed, there does seem to be an epidemic of “rectoritis” spreading across things UVA right now. Ms. Dragas – if you believe the UVA board members – took the “to rule” thing to heart without their appropriate input. Last Friday, Governor McDonnell, not wanting to be out-“rectorized,” demanded the Board of Visitors either take some unspecified “definitive” action by Tuesday — or he was going to use all his gubernatorial power to banish them from Court, as Henry VIII did to his friend St. Thomas More.

    Now, not to be outdone, there is a renewed press report saying again that Ms. Sullivan is willing to come back as UVA President, provided Ms. Dragas is off the board. Presumably, Sullivan wants to have Ms. Dragas’ head on the proverbial spike just in case the next “Rector” decides to take the “to rule” thing to heart also. Presumably, it would hang from the UVA equivalent of the London Bridge. Or maybe just in the President’s office, when the Board of Visitors came by for a chat.

    Bottom line: We have arrived at the moment of reckoning for the term “Rector.” The first required UVA reform: Ms. Dragas needs to be the last “Rector” at UVA. The name needs to be changed and updated to a more 21st-century usage consistent with the state’s educational philosophy. In that regard, the use of the term “Rector” should likewise be stopped in the other public universities in Virginia.

    My suggestion: “Dr. Pepper.” Did you know that the creator of the drink went to UVA medical school, graduating in 1855?  Okay, that’s probably not fair for the other universities.

    But the generic point still stands: It is time to banish the term “Rector” from UVA and other campuses of our public universities. The Boards of Visitors are not intended to be the “rulers” as in the days of King George III. The Governor of Virginia is still entitled to be called “His Excellency.” A certain recent Governor enjoyed being called by that title. But most realize it is from a different time and place. The same for “Rector.”

    So let’s all agree on the first changed needed at UVA: End the use of the term “Rector.” The General Assembly can formalize the change next year.

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