Mudwoman in Virginia?

Howdy, friends.  Since I’ve been living in the long eighteenth century for the past week or so, at least in my own head, I haven’t been consuming either print or electronic news as I usually do.  But several of you have written to ask my opinions on the unexpected and untimely cashiering of the President of the University of Virginia, Teresa A. Sullivan, last week.  As many of you know much better than I, Sullivan had been prez for only two years, and was the first woman chosen to lead Mr. Jefferson’s university.  This morning, I read something that several of you (in person and via e-mail) had already suggested to me, namely that forces on the university’s Board of Visitors against Sullivan were peeved at her resistance to online education.  (Earlier this week, other reporting suggested that Sullivan was perceived as reluctant to cut low enrollment programs such as German and Classics.)

I’m really grateful to you readers for the e-mails and the prodding on this, but since I’m actually making some research and writing progress this week on my own irrelevant and self-indulgent intellectual work, I’d like to turn the conversation over to you.  Some of you who have written to me have UVA connections, so feel free to discuss the Sullivan firing and its causes and consequences.  Go ahead and leave links in the comments–more than two non-embedded links will trap your comment in my SPAM filter, but I’ll try to keep an eye on the comments through the day, although I will not have time to comment.  I’m really eager to see what’s going on out there, and you know this blog would be in the thick of it if I were back at the ranch.

Finally, I found it interesting that this story broke last week while I was reading Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel Mudwoman, which is about the first white woman president of Princeton University.  (Oates never writes the words “Princeton,” she just calls it “the University,” but it’s pretty clear which storied, rich institution of higher education in northern New Jersey she’s writing about.)  Of course, since this is after all an Oates novel, her youthful philosopher and new uni prez, M.R. Neukirchen, is a survivor of a traumatic childhood that comes back to haunt her even as she ascends to lead the University at the age of 41.  This story also unfolds in 2002-2003, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and during the Bush administration’s determined attempt to invade Iraq, so the politics of those times also inflect the story Oates tells as well, as Neukirchen faces not just her own demons but also an attempt by some on her Board of Trustees to remove her.

Longtime readers will probably guess how much I liked the cover of the book, and the story clearly shows that Oates clearly shares my fascination with creepy dolls and sees them as proxies for female disposibility and worthlessness, too. 

In any case, I’m turning this over to the rest of you.  What’s going on in Charlottesville today?  What do you think?

33 thoughts on “Mudwoman in Virginia?

  1. The Slate article provides an excellent overview as well, by a UVa faculty member. I think the crowd here will appreciate the title (What happens when universities are run by robber barons):

    I was sitting at my home office computer, having been away from Grounds since the end of classes, and I received an email from the Rector of the Board (basically, the chairperson) announced that President Sullivan was stepping down. Here is the paragraph that includes the “explanation”: “For the past year, the Board has had ongoing discussions about the importance of developing, articulating and acting on a clear and concrete strategic vision. The Board believes that in the rapidly changing and highly pressurized external environment in both health care and in academia, the University needs to remain at the forefront of change.”

    That was it. I personally was agnostic about the President – as a junior faculty member, I don’t hear much about the goings on “upstairs” and she had been around a scant period of time. And yet, reading the email, I had a visceral response, like a slap to the face, because the email’s deliberate attempts at politicized vagueness and obfuscation of events made it immediately clear that something terrible had happened.

    To date, the university community has been given no information about the substantive reasons that the Board forced President Sullivan out of office.

    The members have failed to explain their criticisms of her performance, and worse yet, have failed to articulate their own vision for the university, even though they are obsessed with talking about “visions”. Unlike the members of the board, and unfortunately for them, the faculty at UVa are capable of analyzing a text and it was immediately clear to us that the Board actively does not want us, the university community broadly and narrowly defined, to know anything about their intentions for the university. There are three possible reasons why (probably all at play): they know we will oppose them; they know they are in the wrong, and thus hiding; they *don’t care what we think and plan to steamroll over everyone*.

    Essentially what happened is this – the Rector of the Board, along with two co-conspirators outside the board (one affiliated with the business school, who had the bad luck to brag about it publicly) – staged what amounts to a hostile takeover of the entire university, all the while demonstrating an almost incomprehensible level of contempt for the faculty, staff, and community. Every subsequent comment by the Rector has basically amounted to: I know better than you do. And also, shut up.

    I think the plans to eliminate some/many modern languages and hand them over to the Goldman-Sachs owned online educational “service” are probably true, among many other terrors of corporatization.

    This is not merely a difference of opinion over what direction the university should take. This is a tiny number of extremely rich people taking control over an institution to which they have no association other than being alumni/donors. UVa faculty is not a hotbed of dissent; though intellectually vigorous, it is politically pretty sleepy, largely because it is a conservative institution, unusual among universities. This is a power play so naked, unethical, immoral (and I can’t believe it was legal either) that it stunned the entire town.

    State representative Morrissey had some biting words for the Board the other day: “”Ms. Dragas and her board must understand they are exercising public power, not private power. They act for the commonwealth through a grant of authority from the General Assembly. This makes them public servants.” He has called for the legislature to launch an investigation. If it goes unchecked, this will be the kind of power grab of a public institution by private people that will have a profound effect on all of higher ed, and all public institutions.

    You can read President Sullivan’s statement to the Board, here:

    Sorry to be all rant-y. As you can imagine, we are in a State here in Charlottesville.

    And yes to all the gender stuff as well. I am 100% sure the Board would not have dared to treat former President Casteen this way.


  2. Leaving aside their politics (which in most places should be landfilled) a basic problem is that the “forces” that run higher education, from governing boards across the top layers of administration, are poorly educated. Hence their desperate clinging to hundred-word cardboard vocabularies dominated by empty buzz words about strategic and vision and articulated. Hence their infatuation with five year plans, ten year plans, mission statements, vision statements, and the like. Hence their tendency to actually sprinkle degree initials at the foot of their correspondence, and their obsession with honorary degrees. Their sentences are not merely embarrassingly stupid, they are sometimes not even really sentences. Some of this is obviously intentional camouflage, but underlying this they just don’t have anything to say that they *can* say. Trying to “remain” in the forefront of “change” just sucks too much oxygen from the basic cranium.

    What you’re callin’ “northern” New Jersey? It’s a small state and every square inch of it has at one point or another been claimed for north, south, east, and west. We don’t want to get another Proprietary range war going in addition to the one that’s already burning down (I almost said “south”). As for “Central” New Jersey, this has been determined by an act of Congress to refer to the two inner tracks of Amtrak’s main line from Boston to Washington as it crosses the state. So Princeton might be better described as being a very short spur line west/north/west of Central New Jersey.


  3. The Slate article is as cryptic about the shenanigans as is the Dragas (dragon?) lady. The article is also presumptive in many ways. (Michigan the premier … in the world; many countries have great schools, why compare?)

    It may be a fight over onlining of education. It may be a personality clash; after all, people who came into money through government sponsored gambling (Goldman Sachs) have more wisdom than anyone else on earth.

    Obviously, it is time to overhaul boards of directors. Making the stinking rich less so is way above our wildest dreams. Having a board that is committed to the function of the university instead and being use as their own Lamborghini is not too much to ask.


  4. If this was, in part, about implementing on-line classes, UVa should think carefully. As states slash public university budgets more and more, the things that distinguish them from “for profit” schools are at risk. Pumping out on-line classes as a money maker will only lessen the reputation of upper level state universities and increase the gap between them and the Ivy’s.


  5. @GayProf: Indeed. It’s hilarious (and by that I mean tragic) that the Board claims that the university is going to lose its status and excellence, and yet their response seems largely to consist of ideas that promise to eradicate our excellence (gutting key departments, alienating the faculty, reducing our commitment to undergraduate education to an online Ponzo scheme).

    And it’s worth mentioning that UVa is successful precisely because of its excellence. In many states, large numbers of good students will go to the flagship state university because it’s cheap; yet in Virginia, many of our students (and most of our top students) come from NOVA (northern Virginian suburbs), and they have parents that can pay to send them to a tony private school elsewhere, should the reputation of the university decline. The school has the feel of private school much more than a public one, because of the high income brackets many students come from.


  6. In many states, large numbers of good students will go to the flagship state university because it’s cheap; yet in Virginia, many of our students (and most of our top students) come from NOVA (northern Virginian suburbs), and they have parents that can pay to send them to a tony private school elsewhere, should the reputation of the university decline. The school has the feel of private school much more than a public one, because of the high income brackets many students come from.

    Well, that’s too bad. In my experience with flagships and the California system, one of their strengths is precisely the many students whose parents couldn’t just turn around and send their child to north/central/west New Jersey.

    As someone in a system that seemed to be about to blow up this spring (and hasn’t yet), I’ve been following this really closely. The refusal to give reasons seems to be a refusal to believe that the faculty/admin/students/alumni/donors deserve any reasons. As hairy as it is to live in a state (mostly) obsessive about open records, I’m grateful that this would be hard to pull off around here.

    My Facebook friends on the UVA faculty seem very shocked that it happened to them. I feel like when stuff like that happens “down here,” people just say “well what did you expect?” That isn’t supposed to happen in Virginia, whereas here we’re always kinda expecting it.


  7. @Indyanna: I like your definitions of central NJ; sounds about right to me. As for the Princeton/UVA connection, it makes sense; Princeton is, after all, sometimes referred to as the “northernmost southern school,” and has the history of elitism, sexism, and racism to prove it (it has also made significant strides in the direct of diversity in the last few decades, to the dismay of some alums, but, as the persistence of the eating clubs suggests, history is hard to erase entirely).

    I’m not sure what to make of the UVA debacle, even as I’m becoming a bit obsessed with it. To this almost-50-year-old Ph.D. who teaches labor-intensive core humanities classes (sometimes even online) on a renewable, multi-year, but not TT contract (to allow for “flexibility,” you know), it’s scary. I share many of Sullivan’s values and perspectives. I’m also pretty sure that she will land on her feet. I’m not so sure that I will, but her situation leaves me thinking harder about the situation I face, and what to do about it.


  8. Oh, and on the gender issue: yes, indeed, I’m sure it was easier to treat a female president as disposable. In fact, I’d take it a step further and say that I can’t help noticing that there’s also a significant body-shape/size disparity between the (female) Rector and the (female) President. Maybe I’m overly sensitive on the subject, since I’m shaped more like Sullivan (and sometimes worry that that limits my opportunities), but I can’t help noticing that a lot of the language coming from the board has to do with movement and the speed at which the university is moving/should move. Mind you, nobody has tried calling Sullivan lazy (probably because they’d be laughed/shouted down even more than they have been already; there’s plenty of evidence that she’s both energetic and extremely hard-working, which suggests, in turn, that she’s taking at least minimal steps to maintain her health), but there do seem to be an awful lot of complaints that she’s slow. I don’t think that stereotypes about fat women are by any means the governing factor here, but I can’t help wondering whether they’re lurking in the back of at least a few minds, and perhaps even playing a minor/supporting role in the decision-making.


  9. Interesting point, CC, about gender and body size politics. You’re right that Sullivan was called out for slowness/inaction, in the views of the Board. That might seem like a problem for the CEO-types who are on the Board, but it sure seems to me to be a more realistic understanding of how universities work, with things like shared governance and the like.

    Anyone who has worked in academia knows that turning around a large uni is like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier. It doesn’t happen without a lot of planning and patience, not to mention buy-in from all of the cooperating parts of the whole.

    I myself wondered about how her background as a Sociologist played into the politics here. It seems clear that it was the B-school types who worked against her, not the Ph.D.s or the liberal arts folk.


  10. Well, the big story may be the ouster of a university President under very suspicious circumstances but the apparent source of discontent (outsourcing your teaching to the Ivies via MOOCs) is more concerning. If that really is the new model then we who hold tenure lines at non-flagship public universities may be the last of our kind. MOOCs taught by the Ivies for free and for credit will push us out of business. This may be a design goal. Only the children of the elites need real, live, teaching and learning, right?


  11. The sadde irony of the dismantling of decent governance at UVa and other elite public universities is that the boards of trustees of elite private universities–not surprisingly, packed with riche-asse corporate motherfuckers–know better than to fucke with shitte like this. These particular riche-asse corporate motherfuckers know that universities are not corporations, and they know to hire outstanding presidents from within academia and to otherwise keep their fucken paws off. In part, this is because private boards of trustees are mostly self-propagating entities, with current members nominating and voting in new members.

    Because public universities boards of regents (or whatever the fucke they call it) are appointed by state governments–refuge of the stupidest, greediest, most depraved politicians on Earth–they can easily pull fucked uppe shitte like this. They apparently are way too easy with appointing the wrong riche-asse corporate motherfuckers.

    And BTW, Princeton is definitely not in fucken North Jersey! It’s in Central Jersey! Now put up your dukes!!


  12. JCO said that “the University” in her novel is in northern NJ. I will defer to the easterners on eastern geography. (I guess she was trying to deflect our attempts to identify it as Princeton!)


  13. p.s. Sorry for missing your comment, Wini–just now found it.

    Times like these remind me about the importance of sensible leadership. When you’ve got it, you forget it’s there and find other things to complain about. When it’s threatened or absent, then you realize how much of a difference administrators can make in your lives.


  14. As any Philadelphian knows, Princeton is North Jersey. They root for the Devils and Yankees up there and not the Flyers and Phillies. The dividing line is shockingly close to Philly.


  15. One of my best pals went to Princeton and studied with JCO. One time he invited me to a party at his eating club where they invited faculty, and she was there. I chatted with her for a few minutes, and she seemed extraordinarily intense, yet kind.


  16. I can’t believe (yes I can) that the people on the BOV sending each other the emails back and forth about online education didn’t realize that no one at Harvard or Stanford is thinking of shifting their actual teaching to online education- they’re just letting outsiders in at distance. The people at Harvard will be the last ones on earth to confuse me watching Michael Sandel talk about justice through PBS or iTunes U as equivalent to having studied moral philosophy at Harvard. The thought there for Harvard isn’t telling its students it’d be making more money if they stayed home and studied online, its maybe some kid at UVA or CSU or wherever will want to listen in on our stuff ‘cuz its so good. The joke is on the BOV.

    Anyway, this is an important link for those of us from or in public institutions of higher learning:


  17. I can’t believe (yes I can) that the people on the BOV sending each other the emails back and forth about online education didn’t realize that no one at Harvard or Stanford is thinking of shifting their actual teaching to online education- they’re just letting outsiders in at distance.

    This is what I was talking about above: These people–while they may be richeasse corporate motherfuckers–are dumasse richeasse corporate motherfuckers appointed by pig-ignorant political hacks in state government. The richeasse corporate motherfuckers on the governing boards of elite private institutions are nowhere near this fucken stupid.


  18. Dr. Cleveland did a great job I think laying out all of the particulars. I esp. liked the point about prestige and how it (rightly, usually) makes institutions immune to “cardboard” marketing language and management fads:

    There are a lot of reasons for this. The better-established a school is, the more power various individual stake-holders have, and the more buy-in the leadership needs from those different power centers. A rich school has more big donors to keep donating; a school with prize-winning faculty members has to keep them from leaving for a better offer; a school with a loyal alumni base has to make sure that those alumni believe that the school is continuing its best traditions. Wealth and prestige come with more people to keep from alienating. And reputation itself matters. The less well-regarded a school, the easier it is to sell the idea that it needs to be shaken up and transformed. A CEO-style university president of an obscure college can be imagined by the Trustees (and himself), as a bigger deal than the school itself. But, as I believe John Quincy Adams first said, ain’t nobody at Harvard bigger than Harvard.

    Love Dr. Cleveland. Hate his/her comments section at Dagblog with the captcha system that makes it difficult to comment! COME to WordPress, my friends. It’s good enough, it’s smart enough, and doggone it, people LIKE it.


  19. Re: Possible gender discrimination, I’ve found it interesting that in Dragas’s public statements she’s tried hard to paint Sullivan as merely an administrator, praising her for her stewardship of “daily” university tasks but chiding her for being unable to grapple with big decisions. This seems to me a deeply gender inflected criticism, one that only works against a female opponent.

    The portrayal of Dragas in the media has been similarly gender inflected–there is a pervasive tone in much of the coverage that moves from subtext to text if you read the comments (I always do) painting Dragas as a bully from the girls’ locker room, a popular rich girl gossiping and scheming to remain queen bee. In other words, Dragas’s self-interested power play is being read as pettiness, which I think in some ways masks how deeply important the stakes of this sort of power play really are.

    Of course, the person who has been hurt least by all of this is Sullivan herself. She already has job offers at peer institutions, and the media coverage about her tenure has ranged from kindness to beatification. Those who felt lukewarm over her presidency are now singing in her choir.

    The ones most hurt are the UVA community, which is downright hostile at this point. The campus is restless, and very, very angry.

    In terms of current action, the Faculty Senate at UVA is still seeking Sullivan’s reinstatement, Dragas’s resignation, and above all faculty representation on the BOV.


  20. Here’s another link, to a Slate article that gives a wider context:
    The article, by UVa professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, notes that “Sullivan is an esteemed sociologist who specialized in class dynamics and the role of debt in society.”
    Can’t imagine why the robber barons on the BOV didn’t get along with her!!


  21. There’s already been one faculty resignation down there (according to the NY Times today) and a political scientist says he’s “been contacted by three universities” already and “hasn’t erased the e-mails.” In the latter case, of course, ze may have been contacted by three old grad school cohorts jibing “aren’t you sorry you didn’t….” No one is contacted “by” a university, only by someone “at” a university, who may or may not have some degree of authorization to transact on its behalf. Nevertheless, there could well be meaningful erosion in the faculty ranks by people who may have choices. More junior people will probably just have to ride it out.

    What is an “audio captcha,” anyway? I’ve been tempted to click on that with google books just to see, or hear, or whatever. Do they just garble up a sound-signifier and give you a chance to smooth it out sonically, as the price of getting access to the text in question?


  22. I agree with UVAGrad on both points re: the gender dynamics. There does seem to be an implication that Sullivan was okay on “housekeeping” tasks, but not the person to envision and oversee a major renovation (or a new building entirely).

    And yes, the criticism of Dragas is also deeply gendered, and in some cases extremely mean (I’ve seen “dragon lady,” and variations thereof, in more than one place). Based on the limited information I have, I don’t like the woman either, but I think the conflict would have been portrayed differently if UVA had had a male rector. I’m not sure whether that would have worked out better for Sullivan; I can imagine a narrative in which she would be portrayed as, or accused of seeing/portraying herself as, a female/feminist “victim” of male “bullying.” I’m not sure the “Mean Girls” narrative is any better on a broader societal scale, but it probably works out better for Sullivan (and is perhaps a bit unfair to Dragas, who, as far as I can tell, is actually according to a pretty standard CEO/business leader model, which would be unexceptional, if still objectionable, if adopted by a man).


  23. @Indyanna: I think it’s an accessibility thing. If you can’t see the captchas, which are images rather than text, and so can’t be read by software designed to translate text to voice for the visually impaired, you need an alternative (come to think of it, given my occasional difficulty deciphering the visual captchas — not entirely the fault of my aging eyes, I think — maybe I should try using the audio ones).


  24. Professor Wulf’s resignation letter (made public – you could probably google Wulf UVa and find it) is a thing of beauty. At the silent vigil yesterday a young woman (an undergrad, I would guess) was holding a sign that read: “Wulf is my hero.”

    In my department, there are many faculty who could go at the drop of a hat, if they wanted to. Every year my department fields 5-6 attempted recruitment of faculty. Out of that, they sometimes retain everyone, something they lose one or two. Most people stay, because they really like(d) it here. As an untenured professor, I certainly would not want my life/career yolked to this place, should the BoV succeed.


  25. I wish we could/would fire our president and hire Sullivan. I agree that she is just a milder face of the corporatization of public higher ed but I think I’d prefer poach to saute. Well, we could never afford her.


  26. I’ve been following this story avidly, and wanted to share some particularly thoughtful links (hoping that Historiann will rescue them from the spam filter):

    (1) The more that comes out about the emails (now readable on line; nicely reported here: the more it becomes clear this was all about money myopia. David Silbey has an excellent post on “UVA and the Moneychangers at the Temple”: He makes an important point (too often denied) that liberal arts departments actually make money for universities, unlike resource-intensive science departments which demand heavy investments.

    (2) At Remaking the University, Chris Newfield has an essential post on the Professional/Managerial Divide that lays out the forces underlying the UVA situation: (He makes an important criticism about how Sullivan describes _herself_ and her philosophy as incremental and conservative, falling into the MBA “innovation trap” — comments about slowness reflect her conception of the reality and not just body size issues).

    (3) A doctoral candidate in history (!) proposed a very interesting (and astute) theory very early on in this escapade: Certainly possible to see the behavior of the BOV as classic back-scratching instead of full-out conspiracy, but still….

    (4) UVA psychology prof gives the BOV a grade of “F” (usefully shows how involved UVA has already been in the online education business, had anyone on the Board bothered to ask):

    Finally, the BOV mindset is aptly skewered in The New Republic:
    A university governed entirely by wealthy businesspeople steeped in a culture of corporate strategy memos will reflect the peculiar perspectives of the modern rich. The financialized American economy has made vast fortunes for gamblers with poor impulse control who mistake a lucky roll of the dice for intelligence and virtue. It’s not surprising that the same kind of fast-twitch thinking would lead a group of homogenous financial patrons talking among themselves to lose patience with a career higher education administrator who was insufficiently galvanized by the latest columns from Thomas Friedman and David Brooks.


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