Fighting For Honor
by LARRY SABATO, Politics Professor
You never fully know an institution until you see it in crisis. And there was a full-blown crisis when the Board of Visitors unexpectedly, and with only the thinnest explanation, dismissed President Teresa Sullivan on June 10. When I received the email that Sunday morning, I thought our system had been hacked, so inconceivable was it that the first woman president, much beloved around the University, had been sent packing after less than two years at the helm.
Somehow the computer servers and telephone networks survived the glut of messages when everyone contacted everyone else. "What do you know?" "How could this be?" "Was there a hidden problem?" I received a large number of calls, emails and tweets from classmates, other alumni and both current and former students. Shock gave way to anger as people gradually realized there was little justification for the firing.
That first evening, I had occasion to sit on a pavilion balcony with a number of University officials. The group included President Sullivan and her husband, law professor Douglas Laycock. The good grace with which Sullivan absorbed this terrible, undeserved blow will always remain with me. This, I thought, is an example to follow when adversity strikes. The rest of us in attendance were not so saintly, and as Sullivan and Laycock left, some asked, "Can this decision be reversed?" It's too late, everyone said; what's done is done and Lazarus cannot rise.
How wrong we all were. We underestimated the outrage, energy and, most of all, the integrity of the University of Virginia community. We did not foresee how alumni, faculty, students and residents of Charlottesville would rise up and demand that this wrong be made right. The palace coup would be defeated by a grassroots rebellion.
As the days passed, organizations sprang up, leaders emerged and big events came off seemingly without a hitch. Everyone played a role suited to them, and thousands embraced opportunities to express themselves. The emotions were genuine and heartfelt.
Some from the outside suggested that we accept reality, move along and prepare for a new administration. While sincere, this advice was wrongheaded. Those at the top needed a lesson that would last: In a community of trust, a midnight knifing with no warning, justification or transparency was unacceptable, and would have to be reversed. Most recognized that this fight was not just about a single individual, but what the University would look like in the 21st century.
Many individuals impressed me through the two weeks of the fight. Among the students who took part, the Honor Committee chair, Stephen Nash (Col '13), was especially concerned about the Board's violation of the University's concept of "community of trust." As Nash put it, "The lack of information given by the Board of Visitors is troubling because it is perceived as running counter to the standards to which we hold each other accountable as members of this community." That was at the heart of the popular movement to reinstate Sullivan.
Other students in the secret 21 Society offered the Board a way out by hanging a large banner from the balcony railing of Pavilion IV for one of the Lawn rallies. Of course, they looked to Thomas Jefferson for guidance, and emblazoned their banner with an appropriate bit of Jefferson's wisdom: "It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it."
That was precisely what a beleaguered Board of Visitors decided to do. When the uprising began, few thought it would succeed. To the best of anyone's memory, a college president, once fired, had never been restored to office in the United States. How wonderful that the University of Virginia has become the first to do so—another in a long list of achievements that delights us all and fulfills our Jeffersonian mandate: "For here we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error as long as reason is left free to combat it."
I have been asked whether other colleges could have achieved a similar result. I do not know for sure, but history tells us none ever has. As the Honor Committee chair suggested, perhaps Virginia's new distinction has something to do with the unique society that exists at the University. We are taught from our first day here that the preservation of the community of trust places obligations on each of us to act when we see a wrong. At a very basic level—in our gut—we knew instantly that President Sullivan's firing was wrong, that we should not tolerate such an action in our midst and that we were obliged in whatever ways we could to right the wrong.
I wish President Sullivan's unwise removal had never happened. The debacle wounded us deeply and will have long-term adverse consequences. But if it was destined to occur, then I am glad it played out the way it did. The University of Virginia community—including thousands of loyal alumni who rose to the challenge—showed the world we mean what we say about honor and trust, and we will fight for both.