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A Victory for Freedom in Charlottesville

By Mike Signer | June 26, 2012 | No Comments

There is great news today that the UVA Board of Visitors has reversed its awful decision from two weeks ago and reinstated President Sullivan.  When academic freedom has already been under attack in Charlottesville, under Attorney General Cuccinelli’s extremely misguided and reckless subpoena of a climate professor’s emails, this was the right time for this victory.

Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia when he was almost 80 years old.  In a report to the UVA’s Commissioners in 1819, he said that among his primary goals in founding the University was “to form the statesmen, legislators and judges, on whom public prosperity and individual happiness are so much to depend.”

A broader, almost spiritual ambition arcs arced over Jefferson’s very practical goals.  Jefferson told a friend in 1820 that UVA would help America achieve its own potential: “This institution of my native state, the hobby of my old age,” he said, “will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation.”

Pursuing the “illimitable freedom of the human mind” is still the University’s goal, and so it was a great step forward that a narrow-minded, opaque, and short-sighted coup was overturned today, in favor of a President who has demonstrated nothing but a deep and profound commitment toward this historic university’s most true design.

As a proud UVA law graduate, I see several key takeaways from the drama of the last weeks and this decision:

1)  Activism — speaking truth to power — works.  There was a tremendous surge of righteous indignation on Grounds, and it was was channeled toward appropriate ends, by intelligent and poised message-carriers (including my old law professor George Cohen, the President of the Faculty Senate).  Every time an activist feels tempted to just give up, they ought to keep instances like this firmly in mind.

2)  UVA are and must remain a civic and public trust.  The Sullivan ouster was driven by a very clear philosophy held by Helen Dragas and others  — that a university like UVA should be changed, that it should be a profit-and-loss driven corporate entity rather  than a public good.   What they didn’t seem to understand was that UVA, as the generator of civic engagement Thomas Jefferson designed, is an ends in itself — not a means for profits or for some B-school theory of management.

3)  The liberal arts abide.  With all the talk of “declinism” and competition from countries such as China, the basic model of liberal arts education has come under suspicion, even attack, especially by those who think the proper emphasis on STEM education ought also to dominate colleges and universities.  Yes, we need more vocational education, and yes, we need far more education driven by useful technical and business career ends.  But the liberal arts themselves — especially when grounded in a civic institution such as UVA (where the Honor Code, for instance, is an article of faith) — are intended to free the mind by colliding many ideas against one another.  Hence the word “liberal.”

4)  Online education is not the complete answer.  As a Visiting Professor at Virginia Tech, I’ve seen both the promise and peril of online education at the college level.  Yes, colleges and universities face a lot of new costs, particularly as a labor-intensive market.  Yes, online education has an important role to play in bringing higher education to students around the Commonwealth, and even has a strong role to play in the liberal arts.  But online education should not be the subject of a religion or an ideology.  It is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and it certainly can be harmful as well as helpful in fields that require close collaboration between instructors and students, or the collective grappling with challenging, critical ideas so common in the liberal arts.  Online education, again, is only a tool for UVA’s goal of creating conscientious citizens fully engaged in a complex polity.  It should not be an end in itself.

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