Rally for Honor shows signs of new tone to protests
Hundreds gather in front of Rotunda as students, professors speak of mending torn community
Approximately 1,500 members of the University community gathered at the Rotunda Sunday afternoon for the third time in six days to call for the reinstatement of University President Teresa A. Sullivan. The Rally for Honor marked two weeks since University Rector Helen Dragas announced Sullivan’s resignation in a University-wide email.
The two prior rallies focused on airing specific grievances, particularly concerning the Board of Visitors’ procedural handling of Sullivan’s dismissal, which many saw as opaque and secretive. The tone of today’s event, however, was one of solidarity and unity.
“It’s very clear who we’re against,” said Graduate Arts & Sciences student Suzie McCarthy, one of the rally’s central organizers. “The focus here is very much about the positive…this is about building us up.”
The Board will convene Tuesday at 3 p.m. in the Rotunda to discuss possibly reinstating Sullivan. Gov. Bob McDonnell sent a letter to Board members Friday warning he would ask for the resignation of the entire Board if it fails to reach a final decision about Sullivan at Tuesday’s meeting.
About 20 professors and a handful of students spoke about the University community’s support for Sullivan and its criticisms of the Board. Many spoke in positive terms about how the University would move forward after the events of the past weeks-a topic almost unheard of a week ago. Their speeches showed signs of a community trying to heal.
Economics Prof. Kenneth Elzinga, who has taught during the tenures of five of the University’s eight presidents, said the Board must “atone for its mistake” of asking for Sullivan’s resignation. He said the Board would earn a “renewed enthusiasm” and increased legitimacy in return for its decision.
“If the Board were to reinstate Terry Sullivan, most of us will come away with a new appreciation for the Board,” Elzinga said. Forgiveness, he said, is what the University needs – not “years of ill will.”
Rallies and statements released prior to Sunday’s demonstration emphasized the community’s ire at the Board’s dismissal of Sullivan instead of offering a concrete plan for how the school should move forward. But reports of dissent within the Board and its sudden decision to call an additional meeting to reconsider Sullivan’s removal have lent hope to many that the recently ousted president would be reinstated.
Still, the fate of Sullivan’s employment at the University remains uncertain. “This is not yet a victory rally,” Graduate Arts & Sciences student Joel Voss said.
Many spoke about the strengths of the University and pointed to the potential for recent events to serve as learning experiences. Batten Prof. David Breneman compared the past two weeks to his experiences as a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley in the late 1960s, when protests against the Vietnam War threw the campus into turmoil. He said Berkeley’s governing board, which attempted to quell student protests with tear gas, ranked among his “most significant teachers.”
“I remember [the rallies] much more vividly than I do many of my classes,” Breneman said. The University’s own Board now has an “opportunity to strengthen its role and the esteem in which it is held,” he said.
Others expressed frustration about the need for the University to return to levels of normal productivity following two weeks of unrest and confusion spurred by the Board’s actions.
“I want to return to the work that we have here to do,” Medical Prof. Leigh Grossman said.
McCarthy said she was “cautiously optimistic” about Sullivan’s possible reinstatement, saying Sullivan’s return would be the best way for the University community to recover from its upheaval. She is currently planning a “low-key” vigil, which will take place outside the Rotunda as the Board meets Tuesday.