Starting a Revolution with Thomas Jefferson: UVA’s Rally for Honor

It’s June 10th. I’m sitting down to breakfast with my husband and, coincidentally, fellow LD writer Katie Racine when my phone beeps telling me I have a new email. The subject line is “Teresa Sullivan To Step Down Aug. 15 as UVA President” and it’s from a woman named Helen Dragas, the University Rector. Let me explain why this was so weird. President Sullivan had been appointed with much acclaim in 2010 as the first female president of the University of Virginia. She was beloved by the students and alumni. She made a point of attending at least one match or game for each athletic team-no small feat at UVA! And would stay until the bitter end to chat with the athletes afterwards.  Yet here was a fairly terse message alerting the UVA community of her resignation. My assumption was that there would be some sort of scandal that would soon emerge- misappropriate of funds, abuse of power, etc.

Fast forward to June 13th. I’m sitting in the Cosi on King Street in Alexandria, VA doing some telecommuting.  I check the news. Still no real news as to why President Sullivan resigned. Over the past few days I had been getting more and more frustrated. As a female graduate student in a fairly old-school male-dominated department at UVA, I had found solace in the fact that we had a female President. Given the publicity UVA had received when she had been appointed I found it totally insulting that she had been ousted in such an unceremonious manner.

As these thoughts were going through my mind, a friend posted a link to a petition calling for the reinstatement of President Sullivan. I quickly signed and shared it on my wall.  But this still wasn’t enough- I needed to do something more. The petition already had over 60 signatures and the comments section showed that people were just as incensed over the lack of explanation as I was. I decided to start a Facebook Group to demand an explanation by the UVA Board of Visitors (BOV) as to why President Sullivan had stepped down. Officially I called it, Students, Friends, and Family United for the Reinstatement of President Sullivan.” I posted a link to the group on the comments section of the petition as well as in the comments section of the few newspaper articles that had been written on the resignation. I also emailed a handful of reporters. I figured if I could get a few hundred members of the UVA community together to voice opposition it would get media attention. My goal was to get this story daily coverage to pressure the BOV to give a full explanation.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into…

By June 15th my group had over 1,000 members and was growing by the 100s each hour. That afternoon, the UVA Faculty Senate Executive Committee issued a vote of “no confidence” in Rector Dragas. Suddenly my little group was becoming a central player in this drama. In addition to being a rallying point the greater UVA community it became the clearinghouse for the latest information. I was able to reach a much larger cross-section of the community than internal email list-serves.  Over the next 11 days this became one of its critical functions as more and more pieces of the puzzle began to come together.

On June 18th, the community came together in front of the UVA Rotunda to hold a “Rally for Transparency” during an emergency BOV meeting. By that time the group ad hit 8,000 members. It was that day that the reality of what I had begun hit me. I didn’t set out to lead a revolution but that was exactly what appeared to be happening. The meeting went on into the wee hours of June 19th.

I woke up at 5:30am on June 19th to find that my worst fears had been confirmed- an interim President had been appointed. The wall of the Facebook group was a study in despair- the adrenaline had faded away and in the cold predawn we were faced with the reality of our position. How could we have thought that we could win against the political and economic power of the UVA BOV- particularly Helen Dragas? Emotions were raw and anger was palpable so I decided to give everyone something to do. Enter “Operation Firestorm.” Governor McDonnell had been in Europe when this all went down and had been using that as an excuse to dodge the media’s questions. I called on the group to bombard his inbox and phone log with demands for an explanation. My goal was to create a large enough ruckus to make it impossible for him to dodge the question when he returned.

That evening we received an amazing gift. Our school newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, had made a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) for the Rector’s emails. They immediately began to tweet quotes from the emails and oh boy had they hit pay dirt. It was painfully clear that the Rector and Vice Rector had conspired to force President Sullivan to resign. Moreover, it looked as if some high profile donors had been influential in the decision.

The following day, June 20th, after much discussion with the Facebook group we decided that we would hold a “Rally for Honor” on the following Sunday. The rest of that week was a blur of interviews, planning, and trying to keep on top of the emotions bubbling over in the Facebook group. I knew that it was essential to keep discussions constructive and moderate to prevent us from becoming discredited as a “mob” particularly since the Rector was already trying to paint us that way.

On the afternoon of June 24th, I found myself standing on the steps of the Rotunda in front of a crowd of several thousand students, professors, staff, alumni, and Charlottesville community members. Thousands more were watching the rally online. I called on the Board of Visitors to reinstate president Sullivan and ended with the traditional, “Waa-Hoo-Waa”! Reporters kept asking me why I was doing this. I couldn’t really tell them the real reason- that I got seriously pissed off- so I told them a better sound bite version about accountability and transparency which were of course part of the story.

I was under so much stress at this point I was barely eating and sleeping. I knew that no matter what, it would be over after June 26th. And it was. And we won. But my role was not over. I went from a graduate student who spent all her time in the library stacks to a well-known and controversial figure. This notoriety has resulted in many opportunities but it has also come at a personal cost. There was great hope that UVA would be embarking upon a year of transformation. That was all dashed during the first BOV meeting in September where it was said in no uncertain terms that those who mentioned the “Recent Unpleasantness” (yes- that is one of the phrases that we are supposed to use) were actively harming the University.

But would I do it again? Absolutely. I have experienced the tremendous power that individuals with connections and money can wield and the way that they can corrupt a system. But I can also bare witness to the truth of the statement: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” And that makes it all worth it.

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