Ramadan: UVA’s Sullivan should quit. Soon.
David Ramadan is a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates (2012-2016) and an Adjunct Professor at George Mason University.
He can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
In August, 2010, her selection as the University of Virginia’s president was plainly designed to maintain the status quo.
And when she lost her governing board’s confidence in 2012, Sullivan and her supporters were able to cobble together scenarios that would convince faculty, students and the press that the underlying issues were academic freedom, and a president’s prerogative to lead at a snail’s pace and as she saw fit.
Well, the first evaporated under scrutiny and the second fell apart when a false Rolling Stone story hit in 2014.
Instead of staying at the helm to deal with pervasive unease, parental angst, and allegations of a brutal sexual assault, Terry Sullivan got on a plane and flew to Europe.
In short order, the Rolling Stone story crumbled, yet reports about numerous other sexual assaults and how the university administration had handled them did not.
Responding to cases of prolific underage drinking that may have led to Hannah Graham’s horrific murder in September, 2014, Virginia ABC agents forced Martese Johnson to the ground in March, 2015. In the process, his head was seriously injured as he was being arrested.
True, the assault happened off-campus, but tailing to speak out in the face of a violent video ignored the obvious: Mr. Johnson was a well-respected black student serving on the university’s Honor Committee, and the community was afraid. And if that fear needs underscoring, here is Mr. Johnson’s letter to this year’s incoming class: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/essay-martese-johnson-writes-open-letter-uva-class-2021-n792511.
Instead, President Sullivan issued a statement expressing her “deep concern” over the incident, but kept silent at a student rally to demand justice.
Later in 2015, the university again found itself front page news when the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued a scathing report citing sexual violence that had been poorly handled. And instead of stepping up, Terry Sullivan spent more money and commissioned more studies.
Only in 2016 did we learn that there had been two OCR reports.
The first was extremely critical of the university — saying that the school had “abdicated” its legal responsibility to act on reports of sexual violence, and listed more than 150 cases of possible sexual harassment or sexual violence during a six-year period — and pressure was clearly brought to bear to bury it.
The second sanitized report was much less direct or expansive, but one finding was left intact: that the University of Virginia had failed to identify and address a “sexually hostile environment.” Now consider that President Sullivan took office in 2010, six years before the report was issued.
Looked at from afar, you might not see a pattern, but one exists.
On the night of August 11, a well-organized mob stormed the University bearing torches and slinging insults at students and the couple of courageous University staff who tried to protect them.
University police were nowhere to be seen.
Understandably, much has been made of who knew what and when, and who did — or didn’t — respond when life and limb were at stake.
But this we’ve seen before.
In a video featured on TV news, President Sullivan publicly berated her own students because they didn’t “tell us” about multiple social media posts they had seen about the march, and claimed that she and the university were unaware that a mob would soon surround Mr. Jefferson’s statue.
Then she abruptly turned and left.
Now, you can call that being caught unprepared. You can call that frustration. You might call it pique. But you can’t call it leadership.
Leadership, after all, isn’t about commissioning another study. Leadership doesn’t rely on carefully crafted and highly polished press releases.
Leaders don’t check to see which way the wind’s blowing. Leaders don’t shift blame or point a finger at others. Leaders don’t abandon candor as a matter of convenience. Leaders lead because — first and foremost — that’s why they were chosen, and they know it.
But now that her university has become a metaphorical epicenter of hate and fear, Terry Sullivan has one last golden opportunity to accept responsibility for a failure to lead by doing just that.
The university’s Board of Visitors could soon announce its choice to become the school’s ninth president.
And when that happens, President Sullivan should simultaneously announce that she will be stepping down and ask that an interim president be named to fill the remaining 11 months of her term.
Do this, and it will mark a turning point for the university and offer breathing room between one administration and the next.
Do this, and it will mark a selfless act for the sake of a university and community in need of many.
Do this, and it will mark leadership.