WSJ Starts Shifting the Sullivan Narrative

In tomorrow morning’s Wall Street Journal there will appear an unsigned editorial that any right-minded individual would agree with. It’s about a university board who tried mightily to convince their new president to cut spending and modernize the school, but the president refused, instead kow-towing to powerful faculty interests. So the university board fired her. And the fat-cat faculty members all but rioted, while the president gave a speech to them. It’s a hell of a story and, of course, it’s not true. Almost none of it is true. What we’re seeing happen before our very eyes is the nationalization of the narrative.

Virginians know the real story: a pair of rogue members of the UVA Board of Visitors secretly engineered a coup against the university president, illegally declaring an “emergency” meeting at which just three members were present to accept the forced resignation. The president was never given a negative performance evaluation, and had been on the job for less than two years, with less than a year of her own budget cycle under her belt. Those board members refused to explain why the president had been fired until many days later, when a strange and illogical list was ginned up that appeared to have no relation to reality.

The facts are not convenient for those who oppose the existence of public education, so the lead intellectual mouthpiece of that group has created some new facts. This new story is one that’s more like the story of Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin unions, one with which half of the country may well sympathize, far more than those rare souls who are liable to sympathize with Dragas at the moment.

Although I suppose it’s possible that the Journal’s talented reporters simply misinformed the editorial board, mangling all of the basic facts of this matter, it’s rather more realistic to assume that this was a narrative dreamed up by Hill and Knowlton, Rector Helen Dragas’ personal PR firm (and paid for by the University of Virginia).

It’s the “why” part of this that’s more interesting. Why would they publish a wildly inaccurate editorial the day before the Board of Visitors convene to settle this matter? (Ignore the governor’s claim that this is the third time they will have met to address this. Assuming they actually hold a vote as to whether they want to retain Teresa Sullivan, it will be the first such vote that they’ve held, at least that anybody knows about.) It’s difficult to believe that such an editorial would sway any members of the BOV. (I’d write that “they’re not going to learn anything new from the editorial” but, in fact, they’d find themselves facing a wholly unfamiliar set of facts.) They know far more about the matter than any editorial board. I think it’s more likely that this exists to set the tone for national coverage after Tuesday’s vote. Now if Sullivan wins, right-wing interest groups across the country will claim that a powerful faculty union has won out against common sense in support of their hand-picked toady of a president. And if Sullivan loses, they’ll claim it as a Wisconsin-style victory against tax-wasting academic elites who have been suckling from the public teat for too long. These angles aren’t at all true, but it doesn’t matter.

The best thing that you and I can do about this editorial? Nothing. Nothing at all. This is a sign that national forces more powerful than any of us are getting involved, and facts clearly do not matter to them. I’m sure that UVA would love to push back mightily, but there’s no doubt that the university’s PR staff has been forbidden from doing so. Only Hill and Knowlton speak for UVA now, and their budget is going entirely to saying awful things about the university. Those who want to affect the outcome of Tuesday’s vote will do better to focus their attentions locally.

A sad, little-acknowledged aspect of this situation is that there are fourteen members of the Board of Visitors who aren’t saying a word. If they wanted, they could push back against this WSJ article mightily. Instead, they are silent which means that, implicitly, Dragas speaks for them. These people who claim to love the University of Virginia apparently regard it like one Army Major did the Vietnamese town of Bến Tre in 1968: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

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