When We Are Needed Most
by MARIE GRIFFITH (COL '89)
Three factors combined, in my case: affectionate admiration for the University that educated me and inspired my academic vocation, empathy for my professional colleagues who have continued to teach there despite long-term financial challenges, and grave concern about the current direction of American higher education more broadly. It's fair to say that it took all three of these to get me on the plane from Bangor to Charlottesville; any one or even two alone would not have sufficed.
Like thousands of other alumni across the United States and beyond, I was stunned and then angered by the unexplained ouster of President Teresa Sullivan that took place less than two years into her celebrated appointment. And I was jolted into awareness of how little I'd really been paying attention to things in Charlottesville, and how little responsibility I had felt as a constituent of the University to do my part.
As the story unfolded and gained traction in the public media, my fellow alumni and I reflected at length on what it really means to be stewards of UVA. I concluded that alumni stewardship comes down to at least five things: paying attention to the institution's growth and change, clarifying its challenges, prioritizing where my contributions—money, time and ideas—can be of greatest use, following through on those gifts and holding the institution accountable to its mission.
Thanks to technology, these things can be done from a distance; but the urgency of the situation in June, combined with my sense of identification with the UVA faculty, meant that I needed to be present there with them, somehow. Most of us now know that UVA faculty compensation has fallen behind that of peer institutions, despite their recognized excellence throughout academia. To their credit, Rector Dragas and the other Board of Visitors members cited this reality as a serious impediment to the University's future. I knew already, through my friendships with faculty in religious studies and other departments, how demoralized people have been by years of flat salaries and tightening of already gaunt budgets. I wanted to make clear how much their well-being matters to those of us elsewhere in higher education, and to do that I felt I had to stand vigil with them during the critical June 26 Board meeting, which Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell had made clear would be the final word on President Sullivan's standing within the University.
I awoke at 4 a.m. on Tuesday, June 26, to catch my flight from Bangor to Philadelphia, and then from Philly to Charlottesville. Hours later, I was walking along Grounds with professorial friends and peppering them with questions about reaction to the Board of Visitors' recent actions. At 2:30 p.m., we gathered in front of the Rotunda for a silent vigil, then tapped into our electronics to listen in on the 3 p.m. public Board of Visitors meeting. Within minutes, as it became clear that the Board was reinstating Sullivan, we cheered her, the Board and the University, grateful that the civil but persistent actions of thousands had helped enable a small but significant justice in the name of due process.
Our continuing challenge, as alumni scattered far and wide, is to determine what we can do to support UVA's current students, faculty and administrators so that the University remains one of the greatest in the world. Education should not be simply a product purchased and consumed for self-gratification, although it is all too often treated that way. The greatest good of a college education should be preparation for moral citizenship and the cultivation of ethical humanity in a world that will always, by its very nature, embody something like tragedy. We've always known UVA is not a for-profit enterprise, but recent events prove it needs our financial help to stay that way.
The social media networks that helped spawn this unusual summertime revolution have quieted since June, but ongoing engagement is critical. The University, and President Sullivan, have found themselves in a national spotlight not of their choosing, and there is considerable pressure on all parties to restore confidence and bring solutions to the financial and educational crises we now know they are facing. After the reinstatement, countless numbers of us made donations to the University in Sullivan's honor, as a way of showing our renewed support for UVA and our awareness that we must participate in its enduring success. Let's not fall careless again.
Marie Griffith is a humanities professor and director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.