Minding Our Minds   /   Summer 2014   /    Essays

The Coup That Failed

How the Near-Sacking of a University President Exposed the Fault Lines of American Higher Education

Talbot Brewer

A crowd gathers on the UVA lawn for a silent protest against the Board of Visitors, June 18, 2012; © Norn Shafer.

One by one, institutions that were not regarded as businesses have been remade in accordance with the techniques and priorities of the business manager.

During the same summer that saw a derecho visit vast destruction upon a wide swath of the nation, a different kind of tempest roiled the campus of one of America’s oldest, most distinguished universities. Of human making, this storm left no physical wreckage, and even the institutional damage it might have wrought was seemingly blunted. For a time, at least, it felt as though something vital had survived unscathed. Certainly, the mood was jubilant, even triumphant, on the late June day in 2012 when some two thousand faculty, students, and staff gathered on the main lawn of the University of Virginia, their eyes fixed expectantly on the door just behind the pillars of Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda. The door opened, and once and future university president Teresa Sullivan emerged. The assembled crowd, of which I was part, burst into cheers, some of us chanting her name. Sullivan bathed for a moment in the jubilation. Then she took to the podium to give her restoration speech.

Two weeks earlier, the same president, a sociologist by training, had been stripped of her office in a coup orchestrated by Helen E. Dragas, rector of the university’s Board of Visitors. When news of Sullivan’s removal began to spread, and when it became clear that it had been done without consulting anyone actually working at the university (with the possible exception of the chief financial officer), the faculty went into full rebellion. The Faculty Senate—a body that ordinarily trundles along without a discernible sense of its own mission—promptly passed a resolution of no confidence in the Board of Visitors. The Senate was joined by a number of other faculty groups in calling for the reinstatement of President Sullivan and the resignation of Dragas and her collaborator, Vice Rector Mark Kington. The university grounds, ordinarily sleepy in the summer, were soon in an uproar. Reporters began digging into the motives for the coup.

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