There was confusion at the University of Virginia two weeks ago when the board forced the resignation of Teresa Sullivan, the sociologist who has served as president for the past two years. Ms Sullivan was popular among the faculty staff. There was no warning that anyone had it in for her. But the affair was not as mysterious as it looked. Helen Dragas, the rector, said UVa needed more reforms “in financial resource development and in resource prioritisation and allocation”. Translated, this means the university’s accounts are a mess. The confusing bit concerns whether this is Ms Sullivan’s fault. (Her supporters hope to get her reinstated next week.)
It sounds like a familiar episode in the American culture wars. On one side are woolly headed academics unwilling to reform hidebound institutions. On the other is a board, in this case made up of politically connected venture capitalists and property developers, who think every human activity, from an assembly line to a church picnic, ought to turn a profit. Ms Dragas was nominated by Virginia’s former Democratic governor, Tim Kaine, who was considered as a running-mate for Barack Obama in 2008. Her vice-rector, Mark Kington, is a former business partner of Virginia’s Democratic senator Mark Warner. Academia is not their natural home. The Washington Post reported that Ms Sullivan had been blamed for her unwillingness “to trim or shut down programmes that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German”.