Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tempest Calmed at Mr. Jefferson's University

In a stunning, but no doubt well received decision, the University of Virginia has reinstated its president. I doubt few people outside of the State of Virginia (I lived there for 14 years) or those working in education were aware of the firestorm over the forced resignation of  Teresa Sullivan, the first woman to be president of the jewel in the crown of Thomas Jefferson's legacy. (For those who are unaware, Mr. Jefferson's tombstone lists three accomplishments of his life: authorship of The Declaration of Independence and The Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, and as the father of The University of Virginia. These were the achievements  for which he wished to be remembered. As John F. Kennedy once noted, Jefferson was the greatest collection of genius ever assembled in the White House when he dined alone.)

Ms. Sullivan, widely reported to be held in high esteem by most of the UVA community (and by those at schools where she was employed in the past), was forced out by the action of the head of the Board of Visitors, Helen E. Dragas (I'm not sure how this is pronounced, but I know how I'd choose to pronounce it) and Ms. Dragas' second in command (who has since resigned from the board.)

Ms. Sullivan's sin appears to have been to fail to respond with appropriate speed and agreement over an article written by non-academics in a newspaper extolling the virtues of on-line education as a profit center and to rid the University of certain language departments and the classics department, which Ms,. Dragas and her colleague labeled "unprofitable."

I did not attend UVA, but I spent a lot of time in graduate school at Columbia University studying Mr. Jefferson's work in education. Much as I must set aside his lack of modern sensibilities about slavery (he was certainly ahead of his time, but not of this time), I am forced to ignore his general belief that women were not to be accorded the same place in institutions of learning that men (women were not admitted to UVA until I was almost through with college) are in order to recognize the beauty of his University and his firm belief that studying the classics and foreign languages was the backbone of a good education.

I studied Latin at a time when it had fallen out of most favor. The final death knell had been Vatican II's rulings that put the Mass in the language of each country. But studying Latin is an excellent way to better learn English and used to be necessary for the study of law (most people rely on Black's for what Latin and French they might need when reading older legal cases these days.) So I took three years of Latin in high school, the New York State Regents Exam in Latin, and a couple of independent study quarters of it in college. I thought I was a dinosaur.

That lasted until I moved to Northern Virginia in 1975 and was working as a freelance photojournalist for some small newspapers and The Washington Post. I don't remember which client it was, but I got sent off to cover a huge event that the high school students who took Latin in that area of the state were holding. Latin was being taught as a living language and the enthusiasm for it was simply amazing. According the the articles I've been following about the UVA uproar, that support for the language and the classics remains, and is reflected in the enrollment in classics at UVA.

I'm guessing that Ms. Dragas is a business woman who has little interest in an actual liberal arts education, which was the core of Mr. Jefferson's vision for his University. It may be old fashioned, but a liberal arts education opens the mind of students by expanding their exposure to thoughts and experience beyond their childhood. It helps students become creative and critical thinkers. Ms. Dragas may be a UVA alumna, but she must be holding a grudge about something.

Ms. Sullivan is apparently aware of this and skilled in dealing with faculty, staff and students. Ms. Dragas has all of the grace of a bull in a china shop.

Like the government, public education is not a for-profit endeavor and cannot be run that way. While it is good to have some accountability and methods that take into account cost-benefit analysis, neither government nor education is about making profit (though surpluses are nice.)

The University of Virginia is one of the "Public Ivies," a school steeped in tradition which honors its founder's vision. I'm glad that Ms. Sullivan will be getting back to work and I hope that Ms. Dragas submits her resignation from the Board of Visitors.

It should take more that huge political contributions to earn a seat overseeing a top-notch University. At the very least, it should require an appropriate understanding of public education.

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