Free Speech, University Politics, and the Leadership Labyrinth

In the Chronicle of Higher Education this month, UVa Professor Bruce Holsinger wrote an intriguing commentary on Rector Helen Vargas attempt to spin the temporary suspension of President Teresa Sullivan by soliciting students and faculty to write opinion pieces that supported her point of view.

UVA Rector Helen Dragas

Photo by Justin Ide for the Chronicle of Higher Education

He writes:”On September 12, The Washington Post reported on a newly released tranche of e-mails between Rector Helen Dragas and other members of the university community. Among the messages are two exchanges that shed disturbing new light on the rector’s actions in the wake of her efforts to oust President Teresa Sullivan. Both speak volumes about her idiosyncratic understanding of free expression at the university whose board she oversees.To put it bluntly, these e-mail exchanges point to a direct and covert attempt on Dragas’s part to influence the content of students’ and faculty’s written expression.”

He concludes, “Time will tell what comes of this surreptitious attempt by UVa’s appointed leader to enlist her own university’s faculty and students to advocate the legitimacy of her views. Dragas’s actions provide yet more evidence that the rector has undermined the fundamental values of the institution she serves.”

Itʻs the next controversy in a chain of controversies which have effectively divided the university and raised fascinating questions about educational leadership in crisis.

University of Northern Virginia

Fundamentally, itʻs about values — shared values, values in conflict, and the constant negotiation of values-in-action. Universities are already struggling with the contrast between an increasingly corporate bottom line and a student-centered bottom line valuing human development. Freedom of speech, academic freedom, and institutional authenticity are on the line at UVa, and every university now, whether public or private. Itʻs just more visible because of the conflict between Vargas and Sullivan.
Richard Ekman wrote a cogent editorial about the challenges of recruiting presidents from academic circles because of the conflict between profit and people that pervades colleges and universities. The UVa crisis is the tip of a leadership iceberg.

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