George Washington is known as the Father of His Country. But here in his native state of Virginia, Washington often takes second billing to the man who served as his Secretary of State.
Thomas Jefferson designed the state capitol. He was the author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. And, as everyone in America surely knows by now, he founded an “academical village” just down the hill from his Monticello home.
Which village has, of late, been roiled by some very un-Jeffersonian hard-knuckle politics. When the Board of Visitors (that’s what we in Virginia call the Board of Trustees) meets this afternoon, it is likely that Teresa Sullivan (never known as “Doctor” Sullivan here because she lacks a medical degree) will be reinstated as President. (Earlier this month, Sullivan resigned under pressure from the Board of Visitors, who were concerned about her lack of a strategy for addressing UVA’s problems.)
What’s been fascinating to me is how both sides have tried to claim that they were acting in harmony with Jefferson’s vision. Rector (that’s what Virginians call board chairs) Helen Dragas announced that her faction of the board was guided by Jefferson’s goal. President Sullivan made the same claim.
Only the President was right. Even though most Board members are alumni (rich alumni, to be sure), they missed an essential part of the Jeffersonian model: the emphasis on developing a culture.
When I served in the Virginia General Assembly, a body which is still guided by Jefferson’s Manual, I was struck by how much attention he devoted to shaping behavior between and among members. For example, he sets out exactly how members address each other: never by name, but always as “The Gentleman [or Gentlewoman] from Fairfax.”
Jefferson and his heirs have built a similar culture at The University. (The assumption among Virginians is that Everyone Knows which university one is discussing.)
UVA was built as a public, liberal arts institution. It’s a place where the classics are still valued (although not necessarily by students who want to, say, enroll in the classes). It’s a place that values its relatively small size. When the Commonwealth offered state institutions a bonus for increasing their enrollment, UVA said, essentially, “Thanks anyway.”
Change comes slowly to UVA. There’s a reason President Sullivan isn’t an alumna. When she graduated from high school, women couldn’t enroll.
It was the pace of change that apparently motivated the Board to try to oust Sullivan. In this act, they were guided by many management consultants. But not, apparently, by Peter Drucker, who famously observed, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Ironically, the Board also failed to follow the parliamentary procedure laid out by Mr. Jefferson. If board members had taken a vote, a two-thirds majority would have been required to pass the motion, and later to overturn it.
But Dragas simply asserted that she had the votes. Which means that today, a simple majority of just eight will be all that is needed to reinstate Sullivan. And, by most counts, there are at least the necessary eight votes to do that.
Many of the issues raised by the Board of Visitors are real. State funding continues to drop. The university’s academic reputation, a legacy of centuries, must continually be nurtured.
The need to address issues like this will not change, however today’s vote comes out. But before charting her course, Dragas should have posed the questions generations of Virginians have asked: what would Mr. Jefferson do?
UPDATE: I thought the vote would be close. It wasn’t. The Board of Visitors unanimously voted to reinstate President Sullivan.