Lessons of Sullivan’s reinstatement

“That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked: “because they lessen from day to day.”–Alice in Wonderland.

Congratulations to the University of Virginia, which restored some hope to higher education today with the reinstatement of Teresa Sullivan as president. In turn, I hope people will understand how local these events were, despite being interpreted as a synecdoche of higher education:

  • The students, staff, faculty, and alumni of University of Virginia could call upon a deep reservoir of shared values and understanding of what the university is. Very few public colleges and universities have anything close to a Thomas Jefferson as a founder or a shared culture that allows defenders of shared academic values to explain their concerns with broader resonance. The same history made the controversy at UVA newsworthy beyond Virginia and higher-ed periodicals.
  • As the state’s flagship university, UVA’s alumni include extraordinarily powerful figures in the state, those who can help reverse a fait accompli.
  • The reversal of Sullivan’s forced resignation was enabled by some truly astounding missteps at key points by Board of Visitors (BOV) members and key patrons. These included unforced disclosures, blundering emails that fed initial impressions of the BOV’s leaders, and an obvious disjuncture between the claims of the BOV leadership and the reality of the University of Virginia. Siva Vaidhyanathan’s stirring description of digital scholarship at UVA is powerful in part because of the contrast between his description of work of his colleagues and the banal, this-could-be-written-about-anywhere-else claims of Rector Dragas and others.

I fear that after the dust has settled, memories of these circumstances will “lessen” in the minds of journalists and other members of the general public. The problems of UVA are shared to some extent with the rest of us in public higher education, but the problems are not monolithic. The effort by students, staff, faculty, and alumni this month has been wonderful to watch and inspiring. I also know how rare this type of reversal is, even while it matters a great deal.

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One response to “Lessons of Sullivan’s reinstatement”

  1. Glen S. McGhee FHEAP

    I wouldn’t celebrate just yet — Ex-Governor Daniels, with his Western Governor’s experience-for-degrees blueprints tucked under his arm, is heading to Purdue. Yup. Purdue.
    http://go.bloomberg.com/political-capital/2012-06-19/gov-mitch-daniels-to-head-to-purdue/

    Sullivan is the first of a long-series of make-over presidents.
    This “march through the institutions” has only begun.