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Student leaders have failed to represent the opinions and values of students following Sullivan's ouster
In a statement, Gov. Bob McDonnell brought lightning down on Friday and University Rector Helen Dragas thundered soon thereafter. “I appreciate the Governor’s leadership in affirming that we alone are appointed to make these decisions on behalf of the University, free of influence from outside political, personal or media pressure,” she said. This is puzzling, for according to the Board manual a model rector ensures “the care and preservation of the Honor System, and maintenance of the independence of the Board from outside influences harmful to the interests of the students and faculty of the University.” Hence the Board is not ordained to resist constructive influence, and a stoic rector risks eschewing honor and ignoring students and faculty.
On the Sullivan question, the faculty stance is well-known. Contra the myth of lazy professors, the Faculty Senate worked hard to support Sullivan. It met with its members, it met with the Rector; it held vigils and rallies and held firm for Sullivan before it was easy or popular. The Faculty Senate, in addition to the Alumni Association, gave its constituents an outlet, one used by us students when ours turned off its power.
Students are central to this conversation but spoken of as absent. We are unarmed in the most important ways. We cannot stop funding the University while still remaining a part of it; we are barred to the pathos of those who call Sullivan “Terry,” their friend; we make no statement by leaving. The Board makes decisions – we live them. And, when the wind comes, student groups supposed to guide have shown a moral compass magnetic to authority.
Four student leaders — Honor Committee Chair Stephen Nash, Student Council President Johnny Vroom, student Board member Hillary Hurd and graduate student Siddhartha Pailla, the former chair of Council’s representative body — met with Dragas Saturday June 16. For her part, Dragas — who acknowledged she had “already met with student and faculty leadership” when the Board convened last Monday — revealed her narrow understanding of student life by inviting such a limited party. More damningly, our so-called representatives did not publicly announce this gathering; nor did they organize constituent input. And, to this day, they will not openly discuss what was said in the meeting with Dragas. None of this offers us any reason to expect better from the next generation of leaders.
Two of the students who met with Dragas spoke Sunday at the Rally for Honor. Nash, though he penned a statement critical of the Board a week prior, said he would “let history render the ultimate judgment on the conduct of the Board” when hundreds were listening. According to its manual, not even the Board can overturn the ruling of an honor offense if decreed by the Honor Committee. Nor will it have to, if the Committee pleads the fifth.
The Council President, meanwhile, echoed our governor’s ambiguous message. “Regardless of whether or not students want to see Teresa Sullivan reinstated or not, we just want the Board to come to a final decision on Tuesday,” Vroom said in a backstage interview. Vroom believes student opinion is diverse regarding Sullivan and will not speak to it until he knows what it is for certain.
Council has worked by straddling a consensus derived from not wanting to overlook any student’s opinion. In this case, Council doesn’t know student opinion because, digital tools and all, it never asked. In fact, Council representatives held their first meeting on the resignation of Sullivan two Sundays after it happened. At this meeting, Council made no decision save to arrange another meeting. Its conference call began at the same time as the Rally for Honor, an event single-handedly organized by a graduate student, Suzie McCarthy. Council thus created an unnecessary schedule conflict for its members while displaying how removed it is from the public.
If they stayed true to their platforms, these student leaders would proceed directly from ideals to conclusions. Nash said the Board’s lack of disclosure after removing Sullivan was inconsistent with our values of trust. Vroom was a President who ran on a platform of collecting relevant data. Neither has adequately represented an overwhelming student frustration.
Because student groups have so resembled the Board through inaction, secrecy and rhetoric, the misguided impression might be that students, like student leaders, will follow the Board wherever. Students should adhere to their community standards even if their leadership fails to. We should demand our leaders speak for us and not the Board. If we believe honor and self-governance worth upholding, then we ought categorically deny the insular, dishonest decision to oust President Sullivan. There is no moving forward until mistakes are righted.