In Protest of Academic Condottieri: My Letter to the Secretary of the Governing Board of UVa

June 17, 2012

The story is here among other places … One more time, with feeling, a move of cultural pillage in the same broad vein as the story of the whole mess with the Girolamini Library… For some reflections on the latter situation, see Daryl Green’s post, on the St. Andrews Rare Books and Special Collections blog which also reviews the details and links to other articles.


Susan G. Harris
Secretary to the Board
University of Virginia

Dear Ms. Harris,

I write to protest the dismissal of President Teresa Sullivan by the University of Virginia’s governing board. Surely the running of the university, a community of scholars across many fields and meant to provide broad and deep education across the disciplines, requires consideration of more than budget issues, and is best left to someone whose training and experience have led her to mastery of the skills and values necessary for faculty self-governance and for maintaining and extending the excellence of the University of Virginia as Jefferson and his intellectual heirs conceived it.

This action on the part of the Rector of the governing board and her group of like-minded board members is a high-handed abuse of power and due process, and a complete misprision of how universities work and what they are for. This is perilous, not only for the University of Virginia as a self-governing community of scholars, but for democracy as a whole, which depends, in every area, on due process and consensus. The faculty are capable of undertaking necessary planning to prudently maintain the University’s programs and integrity in this era of financial difficulty, and to do so with an integrity that has been little in evidence in parts of the country, like Michigan, where alleged “emergencies” have allowed for the complete disruption of our great collective institutions.

May I direct your attention to an essay by Gregory A. Petsko that appeared in Genome Biology in 2010 in protest of a similar approach to governance at SUNY-Albany, which has been read around the world and across the disciplines. In it he protests the short-sightedness and barbarity of presuming that only departments that bring in profit are worthy of continuing to exist in the new “trim” i.e. profit-driven university.

These sorts of unilateral, arbitrary, and frankly tyrannical actions on the part of University administrations proceed without due process — the university is not a private company, and administrators and governing boards are not CEOs, nor should they act like condottieri or aristocratic oligarchies that can act with impunity or without consulting with their communities. They seem to think that rule of law is “I said so.” In my observation, this kind of autocratic approach to governance brings in its train no real institutional or even financial benefit in the long run, and a great deal of corruption and self-serving high-handedness in both the short and the long term. Certainly the university with which I have been associated, UIUC, has demonstrated this in the national news for the last few years.

Scandals of this sort — and do not mistake this for anything else — are in the public eye now. Abuse of trust does not go unnoticed, nor does it remain unprotested.

If we devalue due process, and if we make money our highest value, we have undermined democracy throughout our society. If we do not integrate democratic values into every arena of our lives, democracy fails at large. We cannot serve God and mammon, we cannot tolerate arrogant autocracy in our everyday lives, and at the same time form a democratic society. Perhaps the Rector of your governing board, like many corporate leaders, thinks that democracy is overrated, that everyday people and practitioners of their various crafts (including college professors) are lazy, stupid, and beneath her; perhaps she is eager to install a corporate oligarchy at the University of Virginia. If that is so, and if the state and the University of Virginia allow the University’s programs to be slashed on the basis of their income, then, with Petsko, I suggest that UVa won’t actually be a university, but a corporate-owned subsidiary trade school. Clearly your Rector didn’t take enough humanities courses, or take them seriously enough, because the unfortunate pattern of such actions is documented throughout history, and thought through in philosophy and literature; its outcomes are always unfortunate.

I am encouraged by the waves of protest from faculty, students, and staff at the University of Virginia, and I join them in protesting this high-handedness and short-sightedness on the part of someone who apparently doesn’t understand what she’s supposed to be serving.

Dr. Linde M. Brocato


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