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Tolkien Quote of the Evening

“He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
― J.R.R. TolkienThe Fellowship of the Ring

How Not To Fire A College President

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Helen Dragas disparages without disparaging

Helen Dragas is an amazing piece of work.  She’s the rector of the Board of Visitors that forced UVA president Teresa Sullivan to resign.  A new hearing to potentially reinstate Sullivan is scheduled for Tuesday but leading up to it, Dragas is digging in her heels about the rightness of the board’s original decision.

Yesterday, she released a statement explaining why the board forced Sullivan to resign.  It turned out not to have been written by her.  The geeks unpacked the electronic copy to discover that some hack at the PR firm Hill and Knowlton actually wrote it.  Then the professors weighed in and picked it apart.  Jeez, you do not want to get on a Wahoo’s shit list.  They’re having a field day.

Governor McDonnell laid down an ultimatum: get this issue under control by Tuesday or I will ask for the resignations of the whole board.  I’m not sure this works in UVA’s favor though because McDonnell is a Republican and half of the board members were appointed by Tim Kaine, the previous governor who is a Democrat.  That includes Helen Dragas.  The board actions look like they cross party lines, however.  What the board members seem to have in common is that most of them are in the 1%.  To them, party distinctions are irrelevant.  They’re used to getting their own way.

In response to McDonnell’s ultimatum, Dragas fires back a nasty little ditty of her own.  Here are the money quotes:

I also agree with him on the importance of providing clear explanations of our actions, as I aimed to do in my statement yesterday, while being mindful of the constraints of the confidentiality of personnel matters and the non-disparagement agreements in the President’s contract.

I appreciate the Governor’s leadership in affirming the importance of Board governance, and that we alone are appointed to make these decisions on behalf of the University, free of influence from outside political, personal or media pressure.

I look forward to a respectful and dignified meeting on Tuesday, and to an important discussion of the implications of any decision we make on the ability of future Boards to lead the University.”

Let’s leave aside the sheer chutzpah required to tell the Governor to BTFU, what Helen appears to be saying here is roughly the equivalent of “I am prohibited by law from telling you that Teresa Sullivan is a goat fucker.  If I said that, that would be disparagement.  And anyway, that information is confidential.”

I know I should be blogging about the election or the new, incredibly boneheaded and damaging “Fast and Furious” scandal that provoked Obama to claim executive privilege. That scandal seems to have depressed even Jon Stewart.  But this event at UVA is riveting because it is a microcosm of what is happening everywhere in this country, an easy to digest story of  overreach by the privileged for mysterious reasons that may or may not have to do with making money. It’s happening at a historic university, founded by one of the most famous founding fathers who penned the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson knew all about the motto Sic Semper Tyrannis. There is a lot of Americana and symbolism. The 1% have been doing this very same thing to this country for decades now to different segments of our economy and society.  And the privileged class started crossing party lines to take over the Democratic party in 2007 as well.  But never mind that right now.

What is it that drives Dragas?  There’s a timeline convergence happening in July where the board members are up for renewal.  It doesn’t look like Dragas will be reappointed*.  Is Dragas taking one for the team?  Is she trying to accomplish something before her term is up? Is something big at stake here for her to assert the board’s sovereignty?  Is that why she won’t resign?  Her statement of reasons why Sullivan was “fired” from yesterday seems to be superceded by the statement from tonight where she implies that there’s a blot on Sullivan’s permanent record.  What is this all about? There must be a strategy, because I can’t believe someone would go this far out on a limb without one.  Maybe it only appears to be a Komenesque self-destructive event.

And what are we to make of Sullivan’s confidence?  If she’s been fucking goats, she doesn’t seem to mind anyone finding out about it.

**************************

*Update: @cvillnewscom tweets that a reliable source in the Governor’s office says that Dragas will be reappointed.  If true, the board is determined to get its way and this is going to be a very ugly power struggle.

I saw this quote on twitter in a tweet on #UVA:

“When wrongs are pressed because it is believed they will be borne, resistance becomes morality.”

A bit of advice from a pharma researcher to UVA

You have been placed on the frontline of a global power struggle.  It’s between a bunch of rich people who are used to having their own way and YOU.

Pharma researchers have seen this crap played out for the last 20 years.  For us, it was one merger and acquisition after another.  Some bright young thing from Wharton gets it into his head that putting two pharmas together would be funner than leaving them alone.  It’s all about “synergy” or “strategic reinforcement of core competencies” or “paradigm shifts”.  So, a merger is forced on the labs and for the next two years, no one knows what the f&*( is going on, no work gets done and the best people leave while the local management wave their dicks at one another.  Then come the consultants who walk into a dysfunctional post merger landscape and say, “It’s dysfunctional”.  No shit, sherlock.  How about leaving us alone for awhile until things settle down?  Nope, the reengineering will go forward.  And with each iteration of restructuring, power gets more centralized.  This is a very interesting phenomenon because the consultants and executives at TownHall meetings *say* they want to promote decision making at a local level but the truth is that everyone is so scared to death of losing their jobs that they don’t dare challenge a decision made by anyone higher up. Yes men (and it’s ALWAYS men) get promoted.  Good managers and smart people go away. It happens so often that it must be deliberate.

It has occurred to me that sometime during the late 90’s, we labrats should have picked up our ehrlenmeyer flasks and walked out in a massive protest.  We should have raised hell, although it is even hard for me to envision what that might look like.  We should have gotten their attention and drawn a line in the sand and organized a professional organization with licensing and employment standards.  We should have made it very clear that we were not going to be pushed around anymore because it was destroying research and research is what we live for.

We didn’t.  Instead, we let the business people run research into the ground and fire off memos in bizspeak and plunder the research budget and continue to cater to the executives in the corner offices at the expense of the geeks in the labs.  This country will be paying for that for generations to come.

UVA is now engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that university founded by T.J. himself and dedicated to the proposition of respect and reverence for the liberal arts can long endure.  I’m here to tell you that if Helen Dragas hasn’t been forced to resign yet you are losing.  It doesn’t matter at this point if Teresa Sullivan is coming back.  She may be a great administrator but this fight is not about her anymore.  It is about how your future is being compromised by the usurpation of your university by a bunch of rich people who think that their success in business makes them smarter and more equal than you are.  If you let UVA go under without a fight, similar power struggles will happen at other schools.  And they too will go down like dominos.  Before you know it, you will be run by a corporate president who will look after the shareholders’ needs.  There will be a marketing department who will design your curriculum based on what’s hot this year.  Your faculty will have to compete for their jobs and will spend (even) more time undermining each other at your expense.  And the cost of everything will go up.  It will go into some fund that will be used to increase the value of the endowment or take risks in Malaysia on some upcoming business initiative.

You have got to scare the Board of Visitors, the governor and all of the alumni of UVA.  You’ve got to be bold, dramatic and push the envelope (without destroying any property or injuring people of course).  The interim president should be expected to ask you to calm down, that your actions will only lead to more disruption and damage to the university’s reputation.

This is a lie and should be disregarded.  The more you fight for the university and the ouster of the interfering rich donors, the better off your university will be.  Maybe it will be poorer but you don’t know that for sure yet.  You need to challenge the conventional wisdom that says that business people know how to manage best.

Continue to demand the ouster of Dragas and anyone else who helped her.  Do not let up until you get what you want.  Do not be dragged into negotiations.  They are merely a stalling tactic meant to deprive you of momentum and force.  Set up some barricades, camp out on the commons, and if you don’t get what you want, dematriculate.  Yep, just withdraw from your courses, get your money back and tell the university you won’t reenroll until your demands are met.

What is happening to you now is something the research industry, the Democratic party, the public unions and just about every other sector of society has had to put up with in the past 2 decades.  It is the gradual creep of authoritarianism promoted by people who have power and expect that you will just go along with anything they demand.  They think that you have been trained to be complacent and yielding.  Well, they’ve had so much success everywhere else, why wouldn’t they think that?  Now it’s your turn.  Learn from the rest of us and don’t make it easy for them.  Make this a battle they never want to engage again.

Good luck.

Here’s a video of last night’s action at UVA: