Saturday, August 30, 2014

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Rally for Honor Seeks Re-instatement of U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan

Speakers at Sunday's "Rally for Honor" on the University of Virginia's historic Lawn called for the re-instatement of University President Teresa A. Sullivan and predicted that the University could emerge from the affair stronger.

The gathering on the northern end of the Lawn featured speakers, music and protest signs, as well as children playing soccer and dogs strolling with their owners.

The afternoon started with an impromptu concert by the "Unofficial Transparency Band," whose selections included "Shenandoah," "Don' Go Breaking My Heart," and "We're Not Gonna Take It." There were signs with quotes from University founder Thomas Jefferson, calls for Sullivan's reinstatement and for more transparency in Board of Visitors decisions.

The rally, organized largely by students, came two weeks after the board announced Sullivan's resignation due to "philosophical differences." The board's chair, Rector Helen Dragas, has since acknowledged that the process leading to the resignation was flawed, although she has stood by the outcome.

In statements issues more recently, Dragas has characterized the University as having fallen behind on key issues such as online learning, fundraising and in its response to budget constraints.

The board will meet again Tuesday to consider whether to reinstate Sullivan.

Attendees at Sunday's two-hour rally wore stickers supporting Sullivan and T-shirts with various sentiments, including one that read "This is Mr. Jefferson's University, not John Galt's," referring to a central character in Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged," which stressed her pro-capitalist and pro-individual freedom philosophy.

A University Police officer estimated the crowd at about 3,000 people at its peak. Another 700 or so watched an online webcast.

About two dozen speakers, including faculty, staff, students and Charlottesville Vice Mayor Kristin Szakos, spoke unanimously in favor of reinstating Sullivan, many requesting that the Board of Visitors acknowledge that it had made a mistake in accepting her resignation. Several spoke of how the University can emerge stronger.

If it reinstates Sullivan, "the Board of Visitors will be amazed by the productivity we have to offer," said Peter Norton, an assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and chair of the Faculty Senate's policy committee. Norton called for "civility and a collegial dialogue" in resolving the conflict.

"We have an awesome collegial dialogue here and that is because of Teresa Sullivan," Norton said.

He defended Sullivan's "incremental" approach to change, comparing it to the various stages of the NASA space program, which started in 1958 and put a man on the moon in 1969.

Economics professor Kenneth G. Elzinga said the board made a mistake in asking for Sullivan's resignation. Noting that he has served as a trustee for another college and has "great respect for the task of the board," he described Sullivan as an "exemplary president."

"I have served under five presidents at the University," Elzinga said. "While I am not going to rank them, Teresa Sullivan is the complete package. The Board of Visitors needs to admit its mistake and remedy it."

He said reinstating Sullivan will not diminish the board's authority if it is walking back from a mistake, and urged the University community not to condemn the board for its original decision.

"This is a place to tolerate errors, and when those errors are corrected, the place flourishes," he said. "Teresa Sullivan also has to forgive those who sought her resignation. The Bible says this is not easy, but what we need now is forgiveness and healing, not lawsuits and investigations. I am confident she can forgive."

David Breneman, University Professor and the Newton & Rita Meyers Professor of the Economics of Education, former dean of the Curry School of Education and former director of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, advised students to learn the lessons of this "contested organizational change."

He compared the upset around the president's ouster to campus unrest at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s when riot police were called to the school. He was a student at the time.

"You have conducted yourselves with a civility that defines this University," he said. "The Board of Visitors are good and thoughtful people with the best interests of the University in mind, but they had a disagreement with President Teresa Sullivan and the board misread the response."

He said it would not be a sign of weakness for the board to reconsider Sullivan's resignation and that to persist in error is not leadership.

"True leaders can perceive errors and change course," he said. "And they gain trust and enhanced authority."

Dorrie Fontaine, dean of the School of Nursing, praised Sullivan for her involvement with all facets of the University, from attending sporting contests to appearing at school events and making herself available to students and teachers.

"She has style, grace and courage and I am confident with her approach to fiscal accountability," she said. "She has three rules: never surprise an administrator, find the resources and take control of them, and don't leave out anybody who ought to be consulted."

Marcus L. Martin, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity, called on the board to reinstate Sullivan.

Leigh Grossman, a professor in the School of Medicine, noted that she had come to the University in the 1970s and pointed to the changes that had occurred at U.Va. since then. She said that Sullivan was part of that change. "I have never heard a negative comment on Teresa Sullivan," she said.

She said she was afraid the past two weeks had set the University back decades. "We have lost two weeks of focus, millions of dollars in donations and recruits to future classes," she said.

Elizabeth A. Powell, an assistant professor at the Darden School of Business, called on the University community to refrain from falling prey to stereotypes in considering the current drama and to use "intellectual honesty."

Jon D. Mikalson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Classics and interim chair of the Classics Department, noted that the first professor hired for the University was a Latin professor. He also noted that classics, which has been cited in news reports as a possible target of cuts by the board (which Dragas since denied), is offering more courses and has more students than in any time in the past. He also called for Sullivan to be reinstated.

Peter Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor in the Corcoran Department of History, said that he could speak for Jefferson. "This is what I envisioned at my Academical Village," he said.

Spanish professor Ricardo Padron, a former chair of the Faculty Senate, thanked the Board of Visitors, saying that while its members may make mistakes, they are doing the best they could. "Without their work, we would not have known this," he said, sweeping out his hand to indicate the crowd assembled on the Lawn. "And that we know we all care more for this place than we thought we could."

Late Friday, the General Faculty Council, which represents approximately 1,750 non-tenure-track faculty and professional researchers at the University, added its voice to those calling for Sullivan's reinstatement.

— by Matt Kelly

 

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