Saturday, December 22, 2012

It would be nice to think there are SOME people fighting for Thomas Jefferson's vision of the University of Virginia


The world-famous Rotunda of the University of Virginia (designed by founder Thomas Jefferson): "Students enjoy a warm day on the Lawn (February 17). Photo by Dan Addison" (caption from the "2011 Year in Photos" page of the university website)

"We had a frank conversation. It is my conclusion that [Rector Helen Dragas] does not comprehend the damage done to the University of Virginia, nor does she accept responsibility beyond having poorly managed the President's removal."
-- Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), a member of the Privileges and Elections Committee, in a letter to her constituents

by Ken

The online version of Errin Haines's WaPo story "Embattled U-Va. rector facing opposition to reappointment" brought a smile to my face yesterday. At least sometimes, maybe, there are consequences, even moderately appropriate consequences, to actions. (Senator Howell, by the way, who was chair of the Privileges and Elections Committee when the Democrats controlled the Virginia State Senate in 2010-11, should be remembered as the legislator who in January tried to throw a monkey wrench into the Virginia legislature's insane anti-abortion bill mandating ultrasound tests by introducing an amendment that would have required men to undergo a rectal exam and cardiac stress test in order to obtain erectile-dysfunction meds. She actually got 19 votes, losing by a razor-thin 21-19.)

While I was smiling, I thought about why I was so drawn to, and offfended by, the original story of University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas's top-secret conspiracy to deep-six the school's relatively new president, Teresa Sullivan, even though she never could supply a remotely plausible reason for it, and there seemed general agreement in the university community that President Sullivan was off to an altogether commendable start in her tenure. The reasons that gradually seeped out, if only by inference, were ignorant and vile, and represented a near-total misunderstanding of what any university should be about. And of course it was an exercise of power in part just for the sake of the power -- what's the point of having it if you can't use it?

As I thought about my own obsession with this story (see, for example, my June post "So the only problem with the putsch at the University of Virginia was the way the president's ouster was HANDLED?"), I settled quickly on the bleedingly obvious: that U-Va isn't "any" university. I may not know much about American colleges and universities, but one thing I know is that the University of Virginia has the reputation of being one of the country's great ones. This starts at its very beginning, as the brainchild of former President Thomas Jefferson, a man who understood as well as anyone ever has the mission and importance of such an institution: to nurture the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the world around us, to provide a center and haven for people committed to that pursuit, and of course to train students inspired by that mission to make it a life-long one.

On the university's website you'll find a "Short History of U.Va." that begins with this:

Founding of the University

Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819. He wished the publicly-supported school to have a national character and stature. Jefferson envisioned a new kind of university, one dedicated to educating leaders in practical affairs and public service rather than for professions in the classroom and pulpit exclusively. It was the first nonsectarian university in the United States and the first to use the elective course system.

Jefferson considered the founding of the University to be one of his greatest achievements. Undertaking the project toward the end of his life -- after a long, illustrious career that included serving as a colonial revolutionary, political leader, writer, architect, inventor, and horticulturalist -- he was closely involved in the University's design. He planned the curriculum, recruited the first faculty, and designed the Academical Village . . . .

The University opened for classes in 1825 with a faculty of eight and a student body numbering sixty-eight. Jefferson took great pains to recruit the most highly qualified faculty, five of whom were found in England and three in the United States. Instruction was offered in ancient languages, modern languages, mathematics, moral philosophy, natural philosophy, chemistry, law, and medicine. The students came from the American South and West; interestingly, though, most were not Virginians.

Jefferson opposed the granting of degrees on the grounds that they were "artificial embellishments." In 1824, however, the Board of Visitors authorized granting the master of arts degree. The doctor of medicine, or M.D., was awarded to the first graduates of the School of Medicine in 1828, and the bachelor of laws degree, or LL.B., was first awarded for law school graduates in 1842. The bachelor's degree was awarded beginning in 1849, but became the standard undergraduate degree and a prerequisite for the master's degree in 1899, bringing the University into conformity with other institutions of higher learning. The Ph.D. has been awarded since 1883.
I can't speak for you, but that gives me shivers. I would think that being associated with such an institution, whether as faculty member, student, or administrator, would constitute a privilege and a responsibility, and it's my understanding that over the university's going on two centuries of operation, most of the people who have been drawn to it have felt both the privilege and the responsibility. And when you think of what it takes to establish and maintain a reputation like that, don't you have to wonder why anyone would want to compromise it?

And you're reminded that, as with most other great institutions, building such a reputation is an immense, almost superhuman feat, while damaging or even destroying it can be done with not much more than a flick of the wrist, if it's the right wrist.

As best we can tell, Rector Dragas was peeved that U-Va hadn't taken steps to transform itself into a "modern" university, jettisoning tedious and pointless subjects like classics and reinventing itself as an online vocational training institute peddling dubious paper credentials. Never mind that when Jefferson's university opened shop in 1825, "Instruction was offered in ancient languages, modern languages, mathematics, moral philosophy, natural philosophy, chemistry, law, and medicine." Or that Jefferson himself "opposed the granting of degrees on the grounds that they were 'artificial embellishments.' " Gimme a break, the old bird croaked in 1826. If he were alive today, surely he too would want to see U-Va converted into a diploma mill. And if he didn't, well, Rector Dragas and her coconspirators would know how to deal with the likes of him.


Notwithstanding all the lip service paid to the Founding Fathers nowaday, I often wonder what Jefferson and James Madison in particular would have made of the evolution of the country they did so much to create into a society that has not respect but the most withering contempt for knowledge and understanding. For those two FFs, at least, education seems to me to have been at the root of all their hopes for the country. As I've pointed out here more times than some readers will be able to bear, inscribed over the main entrance of Howie's and my Brooklyn alma mater, James Madison High School, was the inspiring quote from our namesake: "Education is the true foundation of civil liberty." (Each time I also point out that we students were never allowed to use the main entrance.)

I suspect that a fair amount of the resistance to Rector Dragas's reappointment isn't so much disagreement with her "educational philosophy" (I wish I didn't have to put that phrase in quotes, but I don't see how they can be omitted) as embarrassment by and anger over the national spectacle her vendetta against President Sullivan caused the university. I get a feeling here similar to the one I tried to describe the other day in my Bork remembrance, when the judge, during his unsuccessful Supreme Court confirmation hearings, would say stuff that he truly believed (unlike such future compulsive liars as now-Chief Justice "Smirkin' John" Roberts and Justice "Sammy the Hammer" Alito, who under oath lied their putrid guts out, unhesitatingly and angelically, every time they opened their mouths) which the people trying to grease his oily way through the process knew sounded like toxic sludge. I don't think they disagreed; they just knew how bad it sounded.

Naturally, the Charlottesville campus is filled with people who do understand the special nature and mission of U-Va, and who cherish it in deed as well as word far more than I ever could. But if Rector Dragas can't survive the hurdles of the politcal process to secure reappointment, I don't think it will be because of them, and I don't have much hope that the new rector who emerges from the process is going to be a whole lot better. Remember that the man at the top of the current Virginia political process, Gov. Bob McDonnell, isn't really much less conservative than, say, his all-too-likely successor, certified wackjob State AG "Cuckoo Ken" Cuccinelli.

It's just that Governor Bob believes in putting a happy face, a fa├žade of "normality," on his ideological wackitude. (His fearless comment when he finally broke his long silence back in June, you may recall, was: "I would have liked to see things happen a little differently -- a little more promptly, a little bit more communication with people in the community so there was a much clearer understanding about the reasons for their decision.")

What do you suppose Thomas Jefferson would think of entrusting his idea for a great university to people like this?

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