No one is going to be fired at Rolling Stone after a disastrous report laying out their total negligence in publishing a story about a fake gang rape at the University of Virginia. But hey, we expect that from the media, and we especially expect it from a bunch of weed-smoking hippies, which is pretty much how I see the folks at that particular publication.
But there is another place where a responsible party is keeping her job, for no good reason that I can see.
I’m talking about Theresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia.
When the now-discredited Rolling Stone story first broke, Sullivan responded to an implausible and totally uncorroborated report in a third-rate magazine by throwing the entire UVA fraternity system under the bus, shutting down their activities indefinitely. The job of a leader is to keep your head while all about you are losing theirs. Instead, Sullivan panicked and acted with a presumption of guilt against her own university and its students. She has never apologized and her administration still insists on sending out statements clinging to the Rolling Stone‘s narrative about how this case reminds us that colleges are full of young men itching to sexually assault their classmates.
That strikes me as a less than viable business plan for an institution of higher education, and it reminds that the University’s Board of Visitors already tried to fire Sullivan in 2012 for precisely that reason: for failing to cut costs or respond to market challenges such as online education. The Faculty Senate rebelled, Sullivan was reinstated, and it became pretty clear what her tenure was about: protecting the faculty and the administrators and the isolated little shire of the university against interference from the big bad world outside.
Which turns out to have everything to do with her reaction to the Rolling Stone rape hoax. In this case, Sullivan’s function has been to protect the biases and prejudices of the left-leaning faculty against the harsh intrusion of facts. Here’s the real giveaway. When one fraternity was accused of wrongdoing, she shut down all of them. Yet the Rolling Stone report also falsely accused the university’s administrators of cruel indifference to the purported victim—and not a single administrator was fired or suspended. They were offered a protection and presumption of innocence that was not extended to the students. Which pretty much sums up the priorities at most universities: administrators first, faculty second, students a distant third.
That’s why I don’t expect Sullivan to be fired. Like most big institutions, UVA has been captured by its own internal vested interests, and that’s what she protects. But the university should be aware what keeping Sullivan on will say to people outside that narrow little community.
My connection to UVA is somewhat tangential; I live in the area and my wife went to graduate school there. But we have two boys who will be college age in ten years or so. By then, maybe online education will already have disrupted the traditional university, which would be great because it would save us a lot of money. If not, we’ll be looking closely at UVA. We would like to have the option of sending our kids to a well-regarded school that keeps them close to home. But when you’re paying all that tuition, it would sure be reassuring to know that the university is led by a president who won’t throw your kids under the bus whenever she’s panicked by the latest media hysteria.
I suspect a lot of other parents are wondering about the same thing. They should hold Sullivan accountable and demand that the Board of Visitors find someone who is capable of genuine, level-headed leadership.