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The board just voted unanimously to reinstate her.

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This is not a surprising outcome. Students and faculty deserve, on this beautiful summer day, to celebrate, and I’m sure they will. They responded strongly and immediately to what really does seem to have been an attempted coup.

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I actually think this story was au fond about human rather than university values.

Remember the famous letter that guy who quit Goldman Sachs wrote? (“[I]f you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.”) That thing was everywhere — New York Times and everywhere. Remember? Everyone was talking about it. Why?

Because nobody really wants to become a vampire squid. Some people want to become rich and powerful, but few – beyond a scattering of psychopaths – like the idea of reviewing their lives at the end of days and realizing that all that time they were Lloyd Blankfein. We live in a capitalist economy and a competitive culture, and we all deal with that in various ways; but it’s terribly important to us that there be locations in our country where exclusively market-driven values do not dominate.

Teresa Sullivan is a typical, traditional university president in that she is always trying to balance bottom line exigencies with the university’s higher calling, its status as one of the rare places in the United States where serious people gather to do something other than engage in commercial trade. She lives in the world of humane studies. Humane. Humanistic. Having to do with human beings, and bringing to human beings moral as well as intellectual seriousness. Evolving a sense of the diversity, complexity and vulnerability of human beings — think of all those literature courses — and ultimately perhaps evolving a way of dealing with other human beings that reflects an understanding of diversity, complexity, and vulnerability.

The moguls on the board of visitors at U Va were – to put it very simply – cruel. They gave no thought to the vulnerability of Teresa Sullivan; they simply summoned her and bullied her out of a job. They humiliated her. It is not enough to succeed; others must fail, says La Rochefoucauld. That is the world outside — and, sadly, to some extent, inside — the university. When it reveals itself with such clarity as it just did at one of our greatest public universities, our anxieties over what we’re turning into at the highest financial levels of our culture — amoral acquisitive people who positively enjoy hurting others — we respond with great vehemence, as the Goldman Sachs guy who couldn’t take it anymore did.

I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding.

We all know it’s eroding; and we all know that it continues to be the case that the people who are the most eroded get the biggest rewards. Most of us want in some instinctive way to protect our universities from that process of erosion. When messengers from that world emerge into sunlight, we pounce. It’s the only thing to do.

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4 Responses to “Teresa Sullivan is Back.”

  1. jim Says:

    Zeithaml needs to watch his back.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    jim: Yes – gotta feel for the guy.

  3. adam Says:

    Does the term public intellectual have currency any more? The UVA BOV tried to portray President Theresa Sullivan as a throwback. That says much about the debased standards of today’s movers and shakers in University governance. Does it all come down to a Milton Friedmanesque Zeitgeist, with the commodification of students and the commodification of research in service of the University’s bottom line?

    One of the enduring public intellectuals of our time, the great sociologist Jane Jacobs, had this to say about the loss of boundary between public and commercial ethics: …the most rudimentary morality is the line between the guardian and commercial (traditions)… [Systems of Survival, Random House 1992]. University trustees are supposed to understand that they are in guardian service. It’s called The Idea of the University, a quaint 19th Century notion.

  4. Ellie Says:

    “Teresa Sullivan is a typical, traditional university president in that she is always trying to balance bottom line exigencies with the university’s higher calling, its status as one of the rare places in the United States where serious people gather to do something other than engage in commercial trade.”

    Sadly, I do not think this is true anymore. Or perhaps that the “typical” uni prez is no longer “traditional,” in that most seem to have given up on anything without a commercial angle.

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