AL: Professor Alison Levine
SH: Sarah Heinbach
I: My name is Posie Holmes and my partner Sarah and I are in Clemons Library on Friday morning, November 9th. We are here to interview Professor Alison Levine. Could you please just spell your name as you would like it to appear on the record?
AL: Alison; A L I S O N, Levine; L E V I N E
I: Thank you so much. We’re recording this oral history as part of a class at UVA, Media Studies 3559: an Oral History of the Ouster and Reinstatement; Documenting UVA’s future. And I know you signed the consent form but could I just have you orally consent on the recording?
AL: Yes. I consent to having my words used and I give them to you and to UVA and to whoever else wants them.
I: Thank you so much. Just as a little bit of an introduction, could you please describe your role at the university here?
AL: I am a professor, an associate professor of French. My time is divided between three major areas: teaching, scholarship, and service. In the teaching area, which is where I primarily interact with students, I teach 20th century French cultural history and film studies, primarily film studies at this point.
I: Do you think that…
AL: I have a particular interest in documentary film, which is why is why I think your project is so interesting (small laugh)
SH: One reason!
I: And do you think that that particular give you a different perspective on the events this summer?
AL: Not directly. It influences the way I chose to interact with the events. I immediately brought my camera and started filming things and I got in touch with the videographer, the professional videographer Stace Carter who works at the Digital Media Center and he said, “Oh, you know, we are gathering footage. We’re going to give it all the library so bring your camera and shoot!” And for me it was a chance to practice my process. I haven’t had, I haven’t- I study film and I’m making film with my students but my technical skills are really rusty so for me it was a chance to figure out where’s my tripod, where’s my microphone, how does all this stuff work again, do I need to bring headphones? All that stuff. So it was a particular perspective; I was walking around the events looking for good shots: interesting things that were visually eloquent. And also I was doing what you’re doing which is interviewing people and asking what they thought, just people in the crowd.
I: That’s really cool. I was wondering if we could backtrack to the moment when you first learned that President Sullivan was resigning. Can you tell me about that? What were your reactions? What did you think?
AL: Okay… gosh so much happened since its hard to remember that moment.
I: I know there’s so much!
AL: What did I initially think? I guess I initially thought- I think I initially thought it was a mistake. This- how can this be?? And then I just thought something terrible must have happened, you know? She must have had a family crisis or something. I didn’t know she’d been pushed to resign. I’d just read that she chose to resign and I thought: personal. You know, illness in the family or something like that. So it was kind of- I certainly never imagined what had actually happened, happened.
I: And did you continue to follow the events as the unfolded or did you just attend rallies or were you really invested?
AL: I was reading everything I could get my hands on. I was very involved, yes. I mean, I was very involved in just trying to get information: reading all the newspaper articles, what was going on on Twitter, talking to people. I called a lot of people, colleagues. I thought someone must know. I called people that I know in the university to find out what happened, what’s going on, what is this?? So I did a lot of information gathering.
I: And as you gathered information, did your opinions of the events start to change?
AL: It was clear that there wasn’t a personal crisis. It was clear that the Board of Visitors had engineered some kind of power play. Yes, my opinions certainly changed over the course of the events. I continued to- I mean basically what happens in your mind is you kind of come up with theories. Why would they have done this? What was the problem? What was behind it? What happened? And really I’m still asking those questions, because we don’t know and we probably will never know. And we are academics; we want to get to the bottom of things; it’s what we’re trained to do. So… I’m still wondering.
I: If you’re thinking we are never going to get to the bottom of this, I’m just curious (this is a question we’ve been asking a lot of people and we’ve got a lot of very interesting responses), if you were to categorize the timeline of these events into a beginning, middle, and end, how would you do that and is it over?
AL: Certainly not over. It’s certainly not over in the culture of the university. I think the Board of- well I just had dinner, here I can bring this in now. I just had dinner last night with the Board of Visitors because there were here on grounds and they invited a group of faculty who are perceived as innovating in the classroom to bring along a student, each of us was invited to bring along a student, and talk to them. And I thought oh this is interesting and we will have this lovely- I guess they are trying to find out what UVA is all about. So I said yes. And I had several members of the board come up to me at the dinner and say, “ we made a mistake”, “I’m sorry for what happened”, “I don’t understand why people keep coming back for answers”, “this is over; we need to heal”. So I think in their minds it’s very much over; the conversation is over. In the minds of my colleagues and my students, because of these unresolved questions, we really don’t have a feeling that it’s over. And part of the reason why it is so important for us to know is because we’re- the university is in our hands. We really are trying to take the university forward and we need to know what the priorities are from the top so we are not working at cross-purposes with them. What are the priorities that would have been so at odds with Sullivan’s priorities that they would ask her to resign? If we knew that we’d feel like we were on more firm ground, more solid footing, I think to invest our energies into new- basically new tasks which are our- our task now is that we do have to reinvent the university. All public universities have to reinvent themselves. We have to- there’s a lot of innovation that is going to be required on our part and we’re excited. We love innovation, but some of us are a little hesitant to forge off in a direction, invest time, invest grants, invest whatever, in a direction that we’re not sure what the support is at the top.
I: What do you think is the goal of a university?
AL: (big breath)
I: I know, it’s such a loaded question (small laugh). When you talk about the “priorities”, it’s something we’ve discussed in our class and I’d be interested to get your perspective.
AL: What’s the goal of a university? So I guess the goal of a university- I think it’s a- the reason why we spend- I’m going to talk about a public university because we do spend a small - we do spend public funds. As you know UVA has a lot of private funds, primarily. I think that if you are going to spend public funds on something it has to be a public good. The public good that the university contributes is that we contribute to an educated citizenry. If you’re going to have a democracy that works then you need to have- that then the people that are voting need to have ways to get to information. They need to have their own ability to think critically about problems and make up their own minds about where they stand on issues that [ inaudible ]. The people basically need to be equipped with information and skills so we provide those skills and that information, that knowledge, to our students but also the commonwealth in our scholarship and our writing. I also think that there is a role for simply the advancement of knowledge. I think the advancement of knowledge in a very pure sense is a greater good and so I think the university is an important safe haven for pure inquiry: just asking the next question because it’s a beautiful question; because I do believe that human knowledge moves forward and that that’s a good thing.
I: That’s a beautiful answer. (all laugh)
AL: You’re putting me on the spot here! (more laughter)
I: I know! I know!
I/AL: These are all hard questions! (voices become mixed, lots of laughing)
I: I would just like to talk a little bit about your personal involvement. I know you’ve talked about practicing your skills with the camera, but I was just wondering about why did you feel like these events would be good events to get involved in, besides just that they were a wonderful opportunity to practice? What drew you to become involved and go to those rallies and participate?
AL: I really felt like our university was under attack and it was a very odd feeling because it was under attack by the very people that are supposed to be our allies, our leaders, our friends and I just this overwhelming sense of urgency that we had to resist this attack. I also felt a sense of personal loyalty to President Sullivan. I know that she has worked very hard at building alliances with, not with me personally, but with schools and programs. I think one of the reasons she was seen as an incrementalist was because she spent so much time and effort really investing and understanding what UVA is and how it works. It’s a very complicated living organism and has a lot of, as you probably know, very particular customs and traditions (laughs) and culture and so I really think she did a good job working on understanding that. When she came here she was kind of perceived as an outsider. You know, who is this mid-westerner coming in here and telling us big southern university what to do? (laughs) I also felt like we were under attack by market forces and that felt like a threat. We weren’t moving quickly enough to – all the theories about why this might have happened- it all felt like they stemmed from a misunderstanding of what the university is and does. I felt like this was important for the future of the university but also for the future of me and my family. This is our livelihood. I was hoping to make sure this was a place where I could continue to work long term.
I: I have in my information that you wore academic robes to the
AL: Ah, that’s right I did!
I: could you talk about that for a little bit?
AL: Why I wore- ah yes I did! I got my father is emeritus in biology and he has this beautiful Oxford robe. They are bright red and blue and I told him to bring his too (laughs) and I brought him along to a rally We brought along the robes because, even though I joke about the robes usually, I realized that we had a national media spotlight on us and I thought that if we were going to go to a rally we needed some sort of visual statement of who we were because we couldn’t – chances are there would be too many people- we wouldn’t be interviewed, but we would be looking like faculty. We would just be wearing the symbolic trapping of “ hey, here we are. We’re important. See, we have these robes on”. And truth is, we didn’t talk to any of the national media outlets, but we looked academic. It was for that.
I: I really like that. That’s so cool.
AL: It made a lot of people laugh (laughs).
I: Is your father a faculty member here as well?
AL: He’s retired. That’s what emeritus means.
I: Ohhh, okay.
AL: He used to teach in the biology department and now he’s retired but retired with honor and distinction.
I: So UVA runs in your family?
AL: I’m second generation teaching here, mhmm.
I: That’s awesome. What do you think had been the impact of this summer’s events on you personally?
AL: Personally, it was a huge distraction. I wasted a lot of time this summer when I could have been working on my research and teaching. Participating in these events, worrying about them, reading about them, and also personally slash professionally because in this area it’s really hard to distinguish, I invest so much in my teaching and in my scholarship, it really feels like a personal investment and I am sort of a crisis of decision making in terms of my job as to what I’m going to work on next, not in terms of scholarship but in terms of online education, hybrid- I’m doing the hybrid challenge- hybrid teaching. To what extent should I really invest in this stuff? I’m toying with the idea of doing video casts so that one of my courses could potentially be 100 percent online. I already have a lot of online elements to my courses anyways. And I’m really wondering if that’s a good idea or if I do that, then “they”, because there’s this “they” up there now, “they” might say, “ oh thank you for your service. We’ll take your course and you can leave”. Now I realize that is a complete- they aren’t going to fire me but there’s this new feeling about, who are “they”?? And what do “they” want? I never had that feeling before. I really felt like there was- so I don’t feel like there is as much academic freedom as there was. I’m a little less on solid footing as a professor than I feel like I was before.
I: When you talk about online education and your reservations about that and earlier we had talked about sort of this Jeffersonian idea about an educated citizenry, do you think those two ideas are compatible? Or do you think there is something about being at the university and interacting with people that is necessary to create that final product?
I: You ask really good questions. In fact we were just talking about that last night with the Board of Visitors as well! There is this sort of Jeffersonian- I mean the online education deal for free is really Jeffersonian. I think it is going to be a long conversation and I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that because I don’t think you can easily generalize about online education. I think “online education” is as vague a term as “education”. That is it depends how it’s done. It depends on the design. It depends on who’s organizing it. Just like you could say, “Are classes at UVA good?” Well it depends, depends on who designed them, depends on how much the faculty member, and depends on how big they are; it depends on all these factors. I think the same holds for online education. I actually think that there’s a way for online education to be really great and really working in service of the Jeffersonian ideal of democratization of knowledge. I think that for the student experience it certainly a very different thing from coming to UVA and having this whole social scene and all the service and leadership and other things that you guys do, I do think that that stuff is very expense. Bricks and mortar places where people come to study together are going to become more and more elite and more and more separators for the people that can afford them and the people that can’t. But I don’t really know if online education is going to be sustainable as a free service either. It is a tremendous amount of investment and resources to get one of these online things going, one of these big courses and somebody’s eventually going to have to pay for that. I don’t think we know what the business model is yet.
I: I feel like a lot of what we have talked about has come back down to market forces, or economic reasoning. Do you think that the educational sphere and the business sphere are merging? Or is one taking over the other? How do you see that interaction now and in the future?
I: I think that public universities are less and less resilient to market forces. Maybe this was always true and we are getting less and less at good at making a case for the value of what we‘re doing here. We do seem to be in a period of economic challenge. We do seem to be perceived as a luxury that the larger business community isn’t so sure we should afford. There is push towards very, very practical types of education. And yet, the business leaders and the people running the country, they all had this kind of education. If you talk to them, they will tell you the things that they learned in this kind of education are invaluable, they’re invaluable to them, and yet we can no longer afford them. I don’t know the answer to that question really.
I: I don’t know if anyone does right now (small laugh).
AL: I don’t know. I’m not a leader of the university yet (laughs).
I: Well I’m curious because we talked a little bit before we were recording about where you’re going after this so I was wondering if you could just add that little tidbit to our interview.
AL: Ah yes so it just so happens that we are in Clemons Library and the Board of Visitors is in town and the spouses of the Board of Visitors members are taking a tour of the Digital Media Lab on the third floor at 10:45. I am a faculty fellow of the Digital Media Lab which is a position that we sort of invented for me because I absolutely love hanging out there and I am a big advocate for the kinds of things that they allow us to do. They are a primary reason why I am able to innovate in the ways I am in my teaching and do film workshops and digital media workshops and things in my classes. OS I’d thought I’d just wander upstairs and talk to the Board of Visitors’ spouses. I’d like to get them excited about the real meat and potatoes work that goes on at the university and the Digital Media Lab is one of the most exciting, for me. There are lots of exciting experiences that students are having all over the university, different kinds of experiences depending on their interests but for me, this is where it’s at and I’m really hoping I can share a little bit of that fire with them so that they really get excited about what we are doing already. We are doing a lot of things really well. I don’t know if they really are the market forces (laughter) I would like the board to understand a little bit more about what we already do and have been doing and that its not just stick it in the mud conservatism here. It’s extremely forward-thinking. So we’ll see.
I: Do you think a greater level of interaction the highest level of governance and the university and the actual, as you described it, “meat and potatoes”, of the university is going to help our style of governance? Make our governance more effective? So we don’t run into the type of issues we had this summer.
AL: So what’s your question?
I: Okay. Is…
AL: If we talk more, is it going to help us be more effective in governance? Is that the heart of your question?
I: Well the heart of my question is because I’ve seen- I mean you had dinner with them last night, and you’re meeting with them today, and Sarah went to lunch with them today (voices in background), do you think that is a direct reaction to what happened this summer? And is that going to help us in the future?
AL: I do think it’s a direct reaction to what happened this summer. I think it’s a- I don’t know if it’s going to help us in the future. I think it depends- I’m not sure yet and I’m withholding judgment on whether it’s more of a PR move that you’re going to hear from me that I dined with them. I’m going to hear from you that you dined with them and so you know they are real people too and they’re super nice. I don’t know if it’s just that or if there’s a real sort of taking stock on the part of the board that, “wow we don’t know that much about what goes on here and perhaps we should get a little more involved”. I’m hoping there’s a sense that, “wow Terry Sullivan really knows this place. Perhaps we should get to know it a little more so we can just understand what we’re dealing with”. If that’s the case, if that’s what’s behind it then I feel pretty positive about that. I really hope it goes beyond PR, but we’ll see.
I: One of the things we’ve discussed in class is the reinstatement of President Sullivan and what were the motivations behind that, for the board.
AL: Do you have the answer? (laughs)
I: No we don’t (laughing). We don’t think anyone does.
AL: Come on (more laughing)
I: But yeah I have the answer and I’ve been guarding it the whole time and here you go (lots of laughing in background)
AL: Yes! Finally! Ohh my goodness okay.
I: We’ve talked a little bit about PR and the image and you said you felt a personal connection to President Sullivan when they announced that she going to be resigning. Do you think that she was reinstated because a legitimate pressure from the university saying “this is wrong, the process that you’ve done it by”? Or do you think it was another PR move like you’re wondering about whether- so basically my question is do you think they were legitimately reinstating her, or do you think they didn’t want the movement on grounds to get any bigger than it had already grown?
AL: I don’t think you can spate the two really. I think it’s both. There was obviously something substantial behind the movement on grounds. I think that the movement on grounds wasn’t just a movement; it told them a lot about what is going on at the university and who President Sullivan is. But it also was horrendous, horrendous PR for them, so really a mix. I think they wanted it to just be over but they also realized that, “wow maybe there is something to work with here”.
I: Did you personally feel satisfied when you heard that she was being reinstated?
AL: I was there. I was thrilled and excited. I was shooting the whole thing and it was unbelievable.
I: What was it like to be there? I couldn’t go the rallies this summer.
AL: It was unbelievable and one of the things- and I would like to say this for your oral history- is I was and am still completely amazed at the consensus that this issue managed to forge among faculty, student, and alumni. I mean we don’t agree on anything! We are the most hard to govern, diverse, contentious, loud-mouth bunch of people because we’ve all been trained to thin on our own, you included (laughs). And everybody was on the same side of this issue. That was jaw-dropping for me. Imagine the lawn- imagine the lawn- I’m sure you’ve seen some of the video images- this up swelling of love and support when she came through the crowd- we’d been told she was being reinstated- and then she arrived and the crown parted like the Red Sea and everyone was giving her space but it was almost like this collective hug. It was incredible and then she went up on the steps of the rotunda and there were tears, there were hugs and it was so emotional. We’re sort of dry, academic people (laughter) so yes that was really incredible. I think we all had a feeling that this doesn’t happen every day. This doesn’t happen every day at UVA; it doesn’t happen every day anywhere and universities. We really had the feeling of participating in something exceptional. Of course there were media trucks all over, there was all this media coverage, there were so many media outlets here that you could pick your outlet and if you wanted to bet your sound bit out you just went out and found someone- New York Times, Washington Post, the local, whoever you wanted to talk to (laughs). It was, for us, for this little school here, it really felt like we were part of something important.
I: President has suddenly asked to resign at other universities before. Why do you think there was such a strong reaction at UVA? Why did we have that experience here?
AL: Well I don’t know much about the other cases. Have you studied them? (laughs)
I: Generally there’s not much to study because there’s just an announcement and then a new president get ushered in. Basically my question is why did you think that we got that type of experience we had where everyone came together so strongly between students, faculty, and alumni? Why was that unique to UVA?
AL: I think it was- well I don’t really know. I don’t know because I don’t know what happened in the other cases but here’s my guess. My guess is that Terry had done so much work establishing trust and establishing connections. Her influence really on a personal level went out all over the university: deans, schools, the students who see her show up at the volleyball games every week, students who had been invited to her house for parties and whatever. I think that because this was such a small number of people who made that decision it’s pretty clear- and I hesitate to say it- but it was pretty clear maybe it was only three people who really made it happen and the rest of the board just- well there wasn’t really a vote- they kind of gave their support. It was clearly that it was an extremely small number of people who made a choice for a huge university. That was one part of it. And then the other part of it was everyone else, including deans and provosts and vice provosts and everyone just seemed to be shocked. It seemed very early on that nobody knew that anything was wrong. From the prospective of a foot soldier, I don’t walk the halls of the administration or anything. I was looking to the administration to find out- that was one of the reasons I was calling people and saying “What? Did you know this has happening? Did you see this coming?” Word of mouth said nobody knows what happened so it really became clear that there wasn’t a huge, long process of consultation with anybody, except a few members of the board. Even though the university is not a democracy, we all know that, this seemed really egregious.
I: Well I have one last big question
I: Just give it your best shot (all laugh) it’s opinion-based (more laughter from all). So
AL: There’s no wrong answer (still laughing in background)
I: There is so answer (laughter). What do you think, taking everything we’ve learned from this summer, would be the best possible outcome for UVA? In your opinion, what do you think we can learn for this going forward?
AL: I think the best possible outcome is- I mean I do think there are a lot of good things that have come out of it. I think that we have- I think that the board realizes they want to work with us now, which I think is good. I think there’s just a heightened attention to who we are and what we do; we’re in the national media spotlight. That provides a lot of opportunity for us to be our best, to really examine what we’re doing well, and try to do it even better; to not sort of slide through on our reputation. It’s easy for that to happen sometimes: “oh we know we’re great. We’re The University”. I think the positive parts are really self- examination of the university as an institution but even individually as a faculty member: “wow, people are watching. I better be as good as I can be. I can’t be better than that but I can at least do the best I possibly can”. I think that’s a good think. You know I have tenure; why bother? I could just go home and plant my roses and not worry about- you know come in and teach my class and leave. It’ very easy to sort of not invest and still do your job but not really invest in it. I think a lot of people are really investing in pushing this place forward so that no one can come in and say, “you guys are incrementalist or you guys are not aware what’s going on in the world around you or you guys are whatever”. We are! We are- I guess I think this university is pretty amazing as well as we just do what we’re trained to do and we do it well and we do it one hundred percent and we will be fine. I feel pretty galvanized to try and do that as best I can. And I think others are probably the same way.
I: Thank you so much for sharing your perspective with us. Is there anything else you want to add? Anything we haven’t covered?
AL: I think it’s really interesting that there’s thing whole archive project at the library. Is this going to be part of that?
I: This is going to be…
AL: Because I think this is important stuff.
I: submitted, compiled. All the interviews are going to be compiled, transcribed, we’re going to write essays on them and they are all going to be submitted to the archives to be available to anyone to study, to get a richer understanding of what happened this summer.
AL: I think it’s great. Can I ask you guys a question?
I/SH: Sure! Go for it!
AL: Do you guys feel sort of proud to be a part of this? I mean it’s really important history work that you’re doing.
I: I actually- the first moment where I was just so floored by how proud I was, was when the email came out from Honor, saying to the Board of Visitors, there hasn’t been a clear act of lying, cheating, or stealing but basically this isn’t how you do it here. You need to be accountable. I read that at my computer and I almost started crying because I was so proud; this was my school and we were rallying around who we are. So that was just an amazing, amazing moment for me. It has kind of continued through the project. I love who we are. I want to record it and put it in the archives.
SH: I’m a history major so I think- I’m really proud of to be a part of the other side of history: creating and collecting these sources that other people in the future are going to look back on and we really don’t know what’s going to happen and what the university is going to look like in twenty, thirty years.
AL: Right and it will be so interesting to look back on these reflections.
SH: Right because I think they record what life was like here at the university today as well as what we think is going to happen but none of us really know.
AL: No and I think they are really interesting record of what we know and what we don’t know. I work on film history too and I spend a lot of time sifting through archives. It’s really easy to feel kind of smug about the people in the past because, “oh we know what ended up happening. We know now how it ended up turning out and these people writing these letters, they had no clue!” (laughter) But when you’re actually generating the archival material yourself, you don’t feel so smug. Because I really have no idea what is going to happen. I’m an optimist so I tend to- I guess I- I’m almost a deliberate optimist – I tend to believe that in general that if you say things are going to work out well, then they are likely to work out well because you make it so.
I: Mhmm like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Al: Right! With your attitude, with your interaction with people, you know, I’m going upstairs to talk to the Board of Visitors’ spouses, and I’m going to be really positive. I’m not going to say, “Ughh why’d you fire our president?” (laughter) I’m just going to talk about the possibilities for the future. But it’s based on a lot of unknowns.
I: I was a lot like you when this first came out. I felt sort of attached by it and I felt like the Board of Visitors had all the information and they were holding it away and just not giving it out and so I felt like there was this big press to have the information. And conducting all these interviews and doing all this research in class and discussion in class really totally changed my perspective.
I: Yeah! Now I feel like no one has the answers. I feel like- for me it’s more of a positive view because it makes me feel like we are all in this together. There are challenges at universities and in higher education today and the market forces coming in- these are real challenges. But I now feel less of “us versus them”. I feel like we are all in it together, trying to look for a solution. Even if it is- I mean I feel better when the Board of Visitors go out to lunch with Sarah, when you meet with them.
AL: You do?
I: I feel like it’s more of- even if they aren’t intending for it to be that way, they are going to learn more about the university and they are going to help more towards a solution that works for everyone. That’s my optimistic view. I don’t know if it’s going to work out.
AL: I still feel like there’s some information we don’t have.
I: You do?
AL: Yeah, I do. And that is very frustrating because I don’t think we’re ever going to have it. But now the task is to move on. And they certainly aren’t interested in talking about what happened, but they are interested in moving on so that’s where we can really interact with them and be constructive. Sorry what were you going to say?
I: I was going to say do you think this is part of that healing process that they talked about? Going to dinners and stuff?
AL: I’m sure that’s part of the intention, yes. I mean I had one board member look me in the eye and say, “I’m sorry for what happened. We made a mistake”. And that was pretty powerful (laughs) and I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me personally but I was there representing the faculty and I was there representing the board and he said, “I’m sorry”. I didn’t know what to say to it (all laugh)
I/SH: What did you say??
AL: I think I changed the subject (all laughing)
I: That’s a lot to be thrown out there at once! Just out there like “oh I’m sorry for everything that happened this summer” I would have been like…
AL: Oh he also said, “thank you for all you do”, having no idea no idea what it is that I do (all laughing) He said, “thank you for all you do” (all still laughing). Well thank you guys for doing this. I think it’s a great project and I hope you’re having fun with it.
I: Thank you so much for being part of our project.
AL: Yeah I mean you asked great questions.
I: Sometimes I get caught up in my questions.
AL: How many people are- so are you working as a team for the whole semester, the two of you?
I: In terms of the final interviews, so there are several rounds of interviews. Hold on why don’t we- I’m going to save it. Okay, ready?