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What Terry Sullivan's Reinstatement at U. Va Really Tells Us about the Future of Higher Ed

Does the reappointment of University of Virginia's president mark a triumph over corporate interests? Or is it more proof that public universities are headed for demise?

Photo Credit: Troy via Wikimedia Commons


The short-term crisis at the University of Virginia has been resolved. Two weeks ago, the University’s Board of Visitors voted unanimously to reinstate the president they had unceremoniously fired two weeks before that, and all might now seem well. The school’s Rector, Helen Dragas (who spearheaded the removal), and its newly reinstated president, Terry Sullivan, walked into the Board of Visitors meeting together, voted together, and afterward, were seen hugging and chatting like old comrades, vowing to work together to move the university forward.

A week later, Helen Dragas was reappointed to the Board. Everything, apparently, is back to where it was before the crisis erupted.

So what exactly happened here? It remains surprisingly difficult to say. Dragas always maintained that there was nothing personal about Sullivan’s ouster – insisting that despite mutual respect on all sides, Sullivan was fired because of “philosophical” differences over the direction the university would take going forward. Yet in the anti-climactic resolution of the crisis, those philosophical differences seem to have melted away.

Most observers have tended to interpret Sullivan’s ouster as a battle over the corporatization of the public university, as a philosophical struggle between “education” and “business.” In an early article, U.Va professor Siva Vaidhyanathan equated the ouster with “robber barons try[ing] to usurp control of established public universities to impose their will,” while U.Va alumnus Jamelle Bouie argued in the American Prospect that Dragas’ coup represented “The Corporatization of UVa.”

But while these arguments set the tone for the crisis, they have tended to melt away in its aftermath. It’s not hard to understand why: as the two principle antagonists in this drama settle down to work together, it suddenly becomes difficult to see the one as the evil avatar of advancing corporatization and the other as the noble defender of core educational values. Does the philosophical difference that made it necessary to fire Terry Sullivan still exist? What if it never existed at all?

It wasn’t Thomas Jefferson, after all, who originally appointed Sullivan to her position; she was appointed to her post by Helen Dragas and almost exactly the same group of investment bankers, developers and other politically connected “robber barons” who voted to remove her a month ago, voted to reappoint her two weeks ago, and who will vote to appoint the next president, too. Though it is tempting to feel that Sullivan’s reinstatement was a triumph over corporate interests, in fact, no such thing is true. Rather, Sullivan’s return to the presidency has only served to reestablish the fact that the governing boards of “public” universities like U.Va are utterly dominated by corporate interests -- and, in some ways, uniquely vulnerable to corporate manipulation and power plays of the sort that just took place.

Why is this the case? Take a moment to consider how the boards of public universities are comprised and the “why” becomes quickly apparent. As Washington Post reporter Anita Kumar blandly wrote last year (using the same sentence in two different articles), appointment to the governing boards of public universities has become a fairly open form of quid pro quo for political contributions:

It's common for governors to use board of visitors appointments – the most prestigious appointments they have to offer – as a thank-you to longtime supporters and friends.

This bit of copy and paste journalism tells you something about how banal this kind of corruption has become. Board appointments to universities are a naked piece of political patronage, and can be a remarkably profitable one for the truly unscrupulous. But the end result is simple: “public” university boards are totally dominated by high-powered corporate types, developers like Dragas and especially by investment bankers, the only people with enough money and power to buy their way into the position. Don’t take my word for this – just look at the composition of the U.Va Board of Directors (or at any public university’s board of trustees or regents). What you’ll find is invariably the same: a cross-section of the corporate class that has donated heavily to the governor of that state and been rewarded for it.