Within a few weeks of starting my new position at the University at Buffalo, a graduate art student posted “White only” and “Black only” signs on the campus. Though the student, Ashley Powell, claimed she was exercising free speech and artistic expression, many students were alarmed and called the university police. The university’s response, which has emphasized the importance of intellectual freedom, has been criticized and the subject of a peaceful protest during President Satish Tripathi’s annual State of the University address on Oct 9.
Here you can find my letter to the editor of the UB Spectrum (UB’s student newspaper), dated last week, asking, “What if Ashley Powell’s controversial art project had been research?” I explore the concepts of external review, informed consent, and debriefing. These concepts validate the outraged responses of students who feel they were experimented on without their permission.
I’m moving out of my apartment this Father’s Day weekend, so I have no business blogging. But the events at the University of Virginia (UVa), my employer for the last 5 years, are too exciting to ignore. On Sunday, the Governor-appointed Board of Visitors announced their surprise decision to fire Theresa Sullivan after only 2 years as UVa’s first female president (not a splendid, ice-cream-truck-type “surprise” but more like a corporate takeover, coup, or nighttime dealing by a secret society, of which UVa has many).
There has been excellent journalism on the situation, though little concrete information has been offered by the Board of Visitors. I particularly liked this Slate article, by a UVa faculty member, for summarizing what seems like the main issue – I’ll give you one guess – money and how places like universities get it in a recession.
Here’s the part that’s of interest for this blog and my interest in honesty and growth: the lack of transparency in the Board’s actions. In the most concrete terms I can manage, the Board’s mistakes were 1) replacing a president who was enormously popular with virtually the entire university community, 2) for no clear reason, 3) and without informing anyone else at the university before doing so.
These layer upon other problems, which are ethical, philosophical, existential, financial and (probably, for good measure), psychological. But I’m supposed to be packing. So, just two more things:
1. Since I have been at UVa, much has been made of “The Community.” As in, what is the definition of a community, is UVa a community, and how can we help people who feel like it isn’t feel like it is? I participated in an event following Yeardley Love’s death called Day of Dialogue, which brought together staff and students from across the university to communicate honestly about sensitive issues that most people don’t talk about at work, such as racism, sexism, cronyism, hierarchies, how UVa relates to the non-UVa Charlottesville, community, mental health, communicating with one’s supervisors, and religion. (The UVa Day of Dialogue has no connection that I am aware to the Focus on the Family’s Christian-oriented Day of Dialogue).
I came away from the Sullivan-supported Day of Dialogue, which was actually several 1.5-hr sessions, with a greater optimism about UVa being a place where open communication is possible. In my group, there was impressive diversity in age, though somewhat less diversity in gender and race/ethnicity. Women especially seem to dig this sort of group activity. The point of the group was talking, and we spent the first session establishing how to listen and respond to people whose opinions and values differ from one’s own. Still, I met a UVa Groundskeeper, a head of Dining Services, undergraduate students, and non-education faculty members whom I never would have encountered otherwise. Participating helped me decide that a community is a place where people attempt to – at the risk of being redundant – communicate with one another about issues that matter to them. It was one of the UVa activities that I felt proudest to be a part of, even after three years with a research team whose work inspires and uplifts me.
2. Shame on you, Board of Visitors, for being so secretive about a decision that affects so many members of the UVa community. You have corrupted a tradition of open communication that universities and their members aspire to. You have shocked a community that, if not always succeeding, is trying to be one of those places where people talk about things that matter to them and to others. I’m sure you have your reasons and, if you were willing or able to articulate them, they may even make sense to people who are not in your privileged position. But the way you went about removing our president was shameful. The way you went about it casts doubt on your ability to serve on the Board and your ability to represent the diverse interests of an intellectual, yes, financial, yes, but ultimately social community.
As you undoubtedly know, humans are inherently social creatures. We need each other. We need to be able to tell the truth to each other, even if the news is difficult. So I recognize that you, Board members, are also human. And maybe your news was tough, maybe it was “look, folks, your beloved UVa is going under if we don’t do something drastic like offer online degrees.” Or maybe it was “Gosh, I don’t know how we’re going to be able to pay out your retirement benefits.” Maybe it was, “Faculty, we have to get you to bring in more grant money or teach more classes because the state is just not helping us out very much,” or “We need undergraduates to pay more tuition than they can afford because our funds are drying up” Or maybe it was – gasp – “Time to let go of some staff who are taking advantage of the system,” or “What if we reduce your hours?” or – God save us all – “We think the only option besides firing 20% of UVa employees is to sell millions more university brand t-shirts.”
If those are the options, let’s talk about them. While we may not be wealthy land developers or political appointees, we are adults and we can handle it. We know that our country and our state and its institutions are pressed for cash. And we can certainly handle/face/confront/resolve (or whatever business-school lingo you would like to use), the problem a lot better if you communicate about it, instead of doing urgent backroom dealings without consulting anyone with an opinion other than your own.
The way you went about removing our president suggests you have little respect for openness, honesty, or due process. And so, to use your own words, would it be too much to ask that we “mutually agree” on your collective resignation?