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01 Aug 2017
Audio Overview
John Alexander

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Oral History Interview Transcript

October 16, 2012

Sunny L Taylor, Interviewer

Kathryn Wood, Ph.D., Interviewee



TAYLOR:                  Great.  I'm here at Zehmer Hall on October 16 with Kate Wood and we are here to talk about the resignation and reinstatement of President Sullivan.  This is part of the oral history class Documenting the Future of U.Va.  Kate, would you spell your name for me as you’d like it in the transcript?

WOOD:                   In the transcript I would really like it to be Kathryn, K-A-T-H-R-Y-N, last name Wood,    W-O-O-D.

TAYLOR:                  Great.  And would you start first by just telling me a little bit about your background and your affiliation with the University of Virginia?

WOOD:                   Sure.  It goes back a long time.  I am currently . . . I have a number of jobs at the University.  I am an instructor in the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program.   I am a survey researcher and project director at the Center for Survey Research.  And I am also affiliated with the Department of Public Health Sciences in the Medical School.  So I have a number of faculty appointments, but my affiliation with U.Va. goes back a long time.  I started here in 1971 as a student wife.  My now ex-husband was a medical student and within a very few months I became a graduate student myself and received my Masters here in 1975.  I then left U.Va., but came back a number of times.  The last time in 1988, when I began teaching in the sociology department with the thought of finishing my Ph.D. in sociology.  At this time I also had two daughters and the interesting thing is that over the years I did get my Ph.D. in religious studies, not in sociology.  Although, I’ve continued to teach sociology, so I’m very interdisciplinary.  But over the years, I eventually married Houston Wood who is a professor in Engineering, and between Houston and myself we have four daughters.  All four of our daughters have degrees from U.Va.  My husband’s Ph.D. is from U.Va.  My Ph.D. is from U.Va.  My ex-husband’s M.D. is from U.Va.  So you can say that I have a pretty strong affiliation.

TAYLOR:                  Very rich.

WOOD:                   And I have said that I have held every position here other than janitor.

TAYLOR:                  (Laughter)  Thank goodness for that!

WOOD:                   Thank goodness for that.  Yeah, that’s right.  And I go back . . . I mean it goes back to 1971.  My affiliation with U.Va. goes back to 1971 and it has been consistent since then.

TAYLOR:                  And through many generations.

WOOD:                   So a long time.  At least two.

TAYLOR:                  We hope more.

WOOD:                   Well, we’ll see.

TAYLOR:                  So will you share with me where you were when you heard about the . . .

WOOD:                   Absolutely.

TAYLOR:                  . . . resignation.

WOOD:                   (3:20) Absolutely.   A very clear moment in my life.  My  husband and I had returned on Saturday night, the ninth of June, from a meeting in Paris.  And Sunday morning we were at home in our study, where we each have a desk, both checking our email.  And the email from Teresa came across and both of us were just stunned.  I immediately felt from the very first email . . . I felt very confused and very upset and in a way . . . it was just very unsettling.  It made no sense to me.  It made absolutely no sense to me and through that afternoon as Helen Dragas sent out some other follow-up emails it made even less sense to me.  I was on Facebook and – the University, I have an affiliation with the University on Facebook – and the announcement of President Sullivan’s resignation came out on Facebook and I was one of the very first people to respond to that on Facebook.  And I remember very clearly that I said the Board of Visitors should be ashamed.  This is . . . this is horrifying.  And that was my initial reaction and it continued to be my reaction throughout the whole 17 days until she was reinstated.  The reason that it was so confusing to me, and that I think I have a different . . . an interesting perspective here.  For the last year, from August of 2011 until now, I have been working at the Center for Survey Research on a survey of the faculty that – of the entire faculty – that was sponsored by the University of Virginia Faculty Senate and was in fact supported very strongly by President Sullivan’s office.  Through the whole year, my task was to . . . I was project director for the project and I had strong involvement in writing the questionnaire and in designing the way the project was going to go forward and putting it together.  And among other things that we did was we did focus groups and we listened to what faculty had to say about what was going on at the University and what kinds of questions they wanted us to ask.  So through this year I not only worked intently with the leadership team of the Faculty Senate for a period of . . . for a long period of time.  But I had kind of a sounding of what was going on among the faculty.  Everything I heard – everything I heard – about President Sullivan was positive.  I didn’t hear a thing negative.  I heard a lot of question marks, you know, she’s been here too soon to know.  But that was not . . . there was nothing negative.

                                    The other thing that was so interesting to me . . . Well, I’ll actually come back to this later, but it’s one of the things that in the end I think maybe made a difference in explaining the faculty’s response to this series of events because our survey was fielded between March and May in 2012.  And it included . . . the first invitation to the survey included a letter from President Sullivan saying to each and every faculty member “I care about what you think.  We are doing this survey because my office and the Faculty Senate is very interested in knowing about your lives here and the things that you are concerned with.”  When you consider that the last letter from President Sullivan to the faculty went out maybe a month before this happened it’s not surprising that the faculty responded the way they did.  Because that whole series . . . first of all, President Sullivan said to every faculty member here, I care about you.  Secondly, she was saying we want to know what you think as we get ready to move this university forward.  There was absolutely no way she was going to invest this kind of financial support from her office and time and energy if she was on some level thinking of leaving.  So, my perspective on this was really unique. 

                                    (8:15) Secondly . . . the second thing that happened was that on Monday, which would be the 11th of June, I had a meeting regarding the survey with the executive counsel of the Faculty Senate, including George Cohen who was the brand new president, Gweneth West, Chris Holstege, Joe Garifalo . . . I’m not sure all of who was there.  But I thought, and my boss Tom Guterbock who’s the Director for the Center for Survey Research – he and I were both going to this meeting – and we thought, “well, this is good, we’ll get some answers here because these are insiders.  These are people who know what’s going on and they’ll be able to tell us what happened.”  Well I can tell you that ten o’clock in the morning on Monday the 11th when we met, that team of Faculty Senate leaders was absolutely shell-shocked.  They were stunned.  They had no idea what was going on and had no answers to the question of why.  And they were trying to decide what to do next and at that moment I’m not sure they knew.  So that’s how stunning this was to us.  And I can tell you that in my life – and I am 63 years old, and I studied at Columbia University as well as the University of Virginia as well as a number of other schools – I’ve never had any experience that was as disturbing to me as this was.  End of story.

TAYLOR:                  What do you think has been the impact overall on the University community?

WOOD:                   You know . . . that’s a really good question.  And as a matter of fact, the Center for Survey Research is currently fielding a survey in which one of the questions we ask people in the community is “so did you follow this series of events, and are you supportive of the way it came out, and what do you think is the impact on the University, do you think it is negative or positive.”  So I’ve given a lot of thought to that question myself and for me, I just have to say I don’t know.  Because for me – I was so proud of this faculty.  I was so absolutely proud of this faculty and staff, and student body and alums for how they stood up to this over that period of time.  It was absolutely astounding (11:00) and so I personally feel more attached to the University now in a really positive way than I did.  But in the long run, and over the . . . for the whole country, how people look at the University, I don’t know.  I think one of the impacts, if – it’s a question – if we can continue to explore what really went on here.  If there can be some accountability on the Board, which I’m not sure there will be, I think there could be a wonderfully positive impact in terms of some change in governance at the University.  What I saw from the first Board of Visitors meeting in the fall, I’m not real hopeful about that.  But as it stands right now in terms of the University of Virginia’s image in the public eye I have no idea whether this is a positive thing or a negative.  It certainly . . . the way the Board managed things – this is happening everywhere in universities, so that’s no so unusual.  What was so unusual was that the faculty and staff and student body here stood up against it and said not here.  So I was proud of that.

TAYLOR:                  Do you have any ideas on – other than the list of concerns that the Rector gave us – of what the primary reasons may have been?

WOOD:                   Oh, I’m very, very cynical.  And I’m absolutely appalled at the list of reasons she gave.  First of all, those people on the Board who compiled that list, which may have been Helen Dragas, or may have been her PR people, or may have been somebody else altogether – they didn’t do their homework.  One of the things . . . a lot of the concerns that they had, for instance the online education, they didn’t have a clue how much online education was being done at this university.  They didn’t know how much Teresa was talking change with the rest of the faculty, that people were anticipating serious significant changes with the new financial model.  So, the thing that struck me about it from the very beginning, from the very first email, was how inauthentic it was.  (13:50)  Helen Dragas  . . . the whole – and the entire push from the Board never rang true to me.  And it is . . . it puzzles me to this day because by all counts Helen Dragas is bright, and accomplished, and according to people who know her in Virginia Beach, she’s a pretty good woman, which is why this makes no sense to me.  Everything that I read, and I have never read a thing from her before, but it didn’t – none of it rang true.  And it was like, what is really going on here?  You can’t read what she wrote without saying what’s really going on, because it made so little sense. 

                                    So what was going on?  I’ve heard a number of things.  I’ve been told that it was a question of New York money versus Virginia money.  That Paul Tudor Jones wanted Teresea Sullivan out and was going to finance whatever he needed to do to make that happen.  And that the Smiths and the Battens in Virginia had the opposite point of view and said that’s not happening on our watch.  That it was a battle between sources of money.  Who knows?  That’s one thing I’ve heard. 

                                    (15:20) A thing that comes up quite often has to do with absolutely style rather than substance and the differences between Helen Dragas and Teresa Sullivan.  And I am enough of a cynic to say that kind of thing can make a difference.  Dragas is a tall, thin, very stylish, very business-like personality.  Teresa is a more . . . in her physical self, rounder, softer around the edges in her personality as well.  And there’s a real discrepancy there between the two of them and yet anybody who’s ever spent five minutes with President Sullivan knows that there’s an enormous amount of substance there.  And that in fact her style is one that the people at the University were really, really embracing.  And so part of it is that I just think that Helen Dragas absolutely miscalculated.  I think . . . I think sometimes people who have a lot of money, which the members of our Board all do, forget about the rarified world that they live in and they are so used to calling the shots that they just thought this was something that they could do.  That’s one thing.  I think to some extent Michael Strine was involved in this.  I have . . . I’ve used the term that it was a palace coupe and he was the insider.  I do wonder about that and I know that he and Dragas had exchanged a series of emails about it and were . . . had a pretty close relationship themselves.  And it might be that the two of them kind of lost touch with what, you know, in thinking that this might be a good thing, maybe lost touch with what was really going on.   That’s one possibility.  So there’s lots of different things.  I wish . . .  I don’t think we’ll ever know.  I don’t think . . . I don’t think Helen Dragas will ever really come clean about what motivated her and so what we’ll have going forward is a whole lot of stories that people make up out of thin air based on what they observed.  Kind of like what I’m doing.  And the one that I think may have the most . . . the most truth to it is the money – the money story.  Because I was told that by somebody who really probably knows. 

TAYLOR:                  So what do you think their objective is for the University?  The people . . . if it’s a money push, what is it that they see differently about the purpose of this university than the rest of us do?

WOOD:                   Do not have a clue.  The whole . . . the push for online – to be like Harvard, to be like MIT – with this online thing makes no sense to me at all.  It’s not a money maker.  It’s a reputation thing.  They talked about the falling reputation of U.Va. and it’s just not based in fact.  They really didn’t do their homework.  My guess is it’s just like any other leadership organization.  You have some people who have an agenda and some other people who have a different agenda and they disagree.  And that happens a lot.  And I think in this case a couple of the people thought their agenda wasn’t being pushed far enough.  And they were going to see to it that it got pushed by bringing in a new president.  Now one of the things I’ve heard during this time was that they actually already knew who they wanted.  That the reason that they trumped this up was to actually bring in the person that they wanted from the very beginning.  That there was a person who they wanted that was not offered the job originally, and wasn’t in fact available to take the job originally.  But now was and that . . . and that person, he, would be a better president than Teresa Sullivan.  So that might be it.

TAYLOR:                  So that philosophical difference of opinion, that we heard so much about, and we’re all sort of guessing is about the future direction of the University, what do you think the direction of the University should be?

WOOD:                   (20:40) Well, let me ask you – the philosophical difference of opinion, first of all, I think was absolutely trumped up.  I don’t think there was a philosophical difference of opinion between these folks.  I mean, I think that was a nice way of saying “we don’t want you to be President anymore.”  End of story.  What I think the direction of the University should be, well, that’s a good question.  Let me say what I think it shouldn’t be.  It shouldn’t be run by money only.  I think what we’ve moved towards in academic life in general is an absolute dollars-drive sense of what education is, so that what we have . . . we have tuition dollars, students’ tuition dollars, determining what classes are offered.  I hate to think what that actually means for decisions about curriculum.  I think you have – right now, you have a two-class system at the University.  You have tenure-track which are fewer and fewer, and tenured faculty, and then contract faculty.  And the tenured faculty have a lot of benefits and fairly high salaries, and the contract faculty have no benefits and very low salaries.  And we’ve got to . . . I think that’s criminal.  So, there’s a whole lot of money stuff that drives the University right now that I think is really unfortunate.  We talk a lot about education and what it means and I think it is absolutely lip service at this point.  I don’t think that we really pay attention to what it means to learn and think and be.  And, you know, I think – to me, the university is . . . should be what U.Va. has always said it is – a community of students and faculty that are together pursuing academic life.  What we now have, even at U.Va., in spite of what the Board of Visitors thought, we have a whole lot of online education, reaching out to lots of people across the state.  And there’s ways in which that’s an important thing, we need to reach out.  But that absolutely changes the nature of community.  If you have an academic community and everyone’s in their bedroom in their pajamas on their bed with the computer on their lap, listening to the professor in . . . who’s in Tahiti, or who knows where – who can be anywhere, what kind of community is this?  So I’m not a great fan of online education.  However, I’m getting ready to convert a class that I teach to an online format because it is the way of the University as we’re going forward.  So, enough . . .

TAYLOR:                  Do you feel that the economic recession in any way is a valid explanation or excuse for this transition to that dollars-driven . . .

WOOD:                   No.  Put simply, no.  I think that we need to – it’s maybe one of the reasons that in the short term it says well maybe this is making us accessible to people who don’t have the dollars and cents to come to college.  The BIS program that I teach in has more and more online education, but we also have distance learning.  We also have sites that are elsewhere so that we don’t have to have . . . we would not have to have online education to make our degree accessible to people around the state.  I think the economic recession is a short term thing.  I think this online education is a very long term thing. 

TAYLOR:                  You mentioned money issues.  Do you think that the role of state funding played a part in the episode of the summer?

WOOD:                   (25:30) I think state funding plays a part in all of the decisions that get made at the University right now.  Again, because I can’t make any sense of what the Board did, I couldn’t begin to tie it to the issue of state funding, except that I know that the state funds are now at the level of 6 percent.  So the question I would have would be how can the state, which funds us at 6 percent of our operating budget, justify the unilateral appointment of the Board of Visitors by the Governor without any . . . without any other input.  So, you know, in that sense the lack of state funding makes me madder.  Now, I know how the state funding has worked as far as forcing the issue of online education and outreach and that kind of thing.  We are being told to do that, even though they only give us that little bit of money. 

TAYLOR:                  So do you have any thoughts on how the Board of Visitors should be appointed?

WOOD:                   Oh.  (Laughter) Yeah, sure.  I mean, I don’t know what the strategies could be.  There are plenty of ways that the Boards are appointed, and elected, or selected, or whatever words you want to choose.  You could have half of them appointed by the Governor.  You could have half of them elected by the University community.  You could have two or three from outside the University, a former president from another college.  I mean, there are so many different ways that boards are composed at this point.  We are one of the few, I understand, where it is . . . it is done as unilaterally as it is, and where the only thing that you seem to need to have to get onto the Board at U.Va. is a big checkbook.  The . . . so I would like to see . . . I would argue it’s hugely important to have some people who actually know about education and care about it.  What a thought.  Outrageous!

TAYLOR:                  What types of people with what kinds of backgrounds would you like to see – other than academic – any others on the Board of Visitors?

WOOD:                   Other than academic?

TAYLOR:                  Uh-huh.

WOOD:                   (28:00)  Well, I would think that a mixture is good.  I mean, certainly some business people.  I don’t . . . I don’t think that the Board should have no business people on it.  It is a big business.  We need to have people who know how to run big business.  Lawyers – I know a couple of our former Rectors have been attorneys.  I think law background is a good background.  But I think . . . I think history professors, or . . .

TAYLOR:                  Actual faculty?

WOOD:                   . . . English professors . . .faculty might be good.  Former college administrators or current college administrators who serve . . . who . . . I mean I don’t even know if it would be possible to do it, but what if you had the president at the University of Wisconsin serve on the Board at the University of Virginia?  I don’t know that that’s possible.  I think that we could be creative about what kinds of skill sets need to be brought to bear.  And what I really . . . my strongest feeling is that it should not be all business people because when it’s all business people you have only one value.  And that is the bottom line, dollars and cents.  And when you have that, then you don’t have education anymore.

TAYLOR:                  (29:11)  Do you feel as though having a faculty member on the Board this past summer would have made a difference?

WOOD:                   Probably not, in the sense that I think the way things were done this summer were so secretive and such a small . . . my understanding is that half of the Board was left out of the discussion from the beginning.  So, if they’re going to go behind the backs of some members of the Board, the faculty member who might argue the point would just be another one left off the list. 

TAYLOR:                  Uh-huh.

WOOD:                   So I don’t think it would have made any difference, any more than having the student member did, because in the case of the student member, Dragas was absolutely inappropriate in talking to her about what she needed to say and what she needed to think.  Huge misstep.

TAYLOR:                  From your background, as a social scientist, if you were writing this history, what do you feel is important about the events of the summer?

WOOD:                   In my proud moments about it, when I can look at it institutionally and I see it as this . . . a growing – there’s a growing push within colleges, within academia in general, to be run by money only.  And by that value system and by that it was epitomized in the series of events that happened and that our faculty stood up and said, no, there’s something else going here.  So, I would want to look at that clash of value systems and how that happened.  I would want to look at the impact of the Honor System, which frankly, I’m pretty cynical about as well, as are most faculty at this point.  And yet, somehow there was something that was so flagrantly against the community here that – so I would want to look at the Honor System.  And what else . . . what I would want to include, is that what you’re asking?  What are the things that strike me?  Repeat the question.

TAYLOR:                  What you would consider important about the history.  If you were writing the history of this event . . .

WOOD:                   Yeah.  I would like . . . well, you have to say Suzi McCarthy and Facebook, and the whole social media, tweeting.  I joined Suzi McCarthy’s group on Facebook when it was about six hundred, I think.  And within a week it was sixteen thousand.  It was quite amazing.  I don’t think that the faculty and students and staff would have been successful in opposing this without social media.  My husband and I were waking up at three o’clock in the morning all the time and checking our email, and checking our Facebook.  And the most amazing thing about it was almost every time that we woke up at three o’clock in the morning there was something new to read.  It was amazing.  So, I think sociologically, that’s probably the most important thing.  That’s probably the most interesting thing.  But the other thing that’s real interesting to me, and was at the time, is the way the staff, and students, and faculty, and alumni really joined forces on this, because very frequently you have those groups in their own little silos or organizations, or whatever.  And you didn’t have a sense of that.  You stood on the lawn and there were faculty and emeritus faculty, and students and students’ children, and alumni and staff from all over this University.  The most amazing thing to me about it at the time was that it was so unanimous.  The opposition to what happened at the Board was so unanimous at this university.  The interesting thing to me about that is we know, I mean . . . it’s not possible that support for Teresa Sullivan to be the President of the University could be that unanimous.  It wouldn’t be.  It wouldn’t be.  But the way it was done, the community was completely unanimous in opposition.  The sort of sad part is that the discussion that should be had at some point about whether Teresa Sullivan was (35:25) doing a good job, or not – in the way that this was handled, at such a premature stage, this absolutely nipped that conversation in the bud.  There won’t be a conversation about that for a number of years, and she may choose to leave before that conversation ever gets had.  And the sad thing is that that’s a conversation that could be had.  You could argue that this . . . that the financial model that Teresa Sullivan was proposing is not the appropriate one.  Or you could argue any number of different things, but that conversation was never had, and probably can’t be now for a long time.  That’s a consequence.  So that needs . . . I think that needs to be – the unanimity of it – was unanimous support for Sullivan but it isn’t that everyone in the University thought she was the best president they’ve ever had.

TAYLOR:                  Do you feel as though the beliefs and ideas of Thomas Jefferson played out here?  His ideas about public education and democracy?

WOOD:                   Sure.  You can’t . . . I mean . . . here’s what I think.  I think that the University of Virginia, all of us – staff, students, alumni – from the day you think about coming to U.Va., for any number of reasons, you really are inculcated with the idea that this is a very special place because Thomas Jefferson designed it and founded it.  I think that sense that this is a special place is what motivated this.  Not so much Jeffersonian ideals of democracy, but “hey, we’re better than this, we’re Jeffersonian.”  So there’s kind of a disconnect there, but so my answer is “well, yeah, kinda.”

TAYLOR:                  Okay. Are there any topics that we haven’t covered that you would like to, or any doors we should open . . .

WOOD:                   Wow. 

TAYLOR:                  . . . that we haven’t yet?

WOOD:                   We’ve been talking a lot and I’ve said a lot of things in a very short time.  (Pause).  Not off hand.  I might think of something later.  How about you?  What other questions . . .

TAYLOR:                  Well let me just throw this one out here.  In terms of this event, where would you say we are right now – the beginning, the middle, the end?

WOOD:                   Well obviously the critical moment came and went.  But I think it’s not over at all.  I think there’s a lot of work to be done on this yet.  And I think it’s not over and it may not be over for about five years.  I’m guessing five years.  A lot will depend on what the Virginia legislature does about governance structures.  I mean if there’s a long conversation about that, this will . . . this will be the middle of it.  If the Board is successful in saying to the Faculty Senate, shut up and go back to work, it may be over sooner than we think.  But I will be real surprised if there aren’t some long term consequences, so . . . and those consequences are yet to be seen.  So, middle.

TAYLOR:                  Okay.  Well, you have covered, actually, a lot of area.

WOOD:                   Yeah.

TAYLOR:                  So if you don’t have anything to add, I’m going to thank you . . .

WOOD:                   Oh, wow.  Okay.  Great.

TAYLOR:                  . . . very much for your time . . .

WOOD:                   Great.  You’re welcome.  (38:48)