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Kseniya Belik Interview—Transcript
Emily: Could you please state your name and spell it for the record?
Kseniya: Sure. My name is Kseniya Belik spelled K-S-E-N-I-Y-A, Belik B-E-L-I-K.
E: And I am Emily Catino and this interview is taking place at the University of Virginia on October 11, 2012. And we are going to be discussing the ouster—the resignation and reinstatement of President Teresa Sullivan. Can I get your oral consent for this being put on the Internet and documented?
E: Great. So first, why don’t you tell me about how you first decided to come to UVA?
K: Sure, well, like you I’m also and in-state student so it was a little bit natural for me to apply here and then I guess getting accepted and then getting financial aid from the UVA, access UVA thing, really made up my mind. It seemed like a good option being close and being financially feasible. And I also, I did consider other colleges, but I think when I came to UVA I felt that vibe of a specific UVA culture that other colleges didn’t have. Like, they weren’t coherent in their community and UVA was, I thought.
E: Yeah, and was there anything specific about the community that was just, like, “I have to go here.”
K: I think, aside from how picturesque UVA is, just I guess the strong sense of commitment I thought students had to UVA and especially the values of the Honor System.
E: Definitely, and so have you gotten involved in UVA much since you’ve been here?
K: I tried to get more involved first year, but I realized that I don’t really excel in activism or/slash being outgoing so I more or less just stick to my schoolwork and I did recently join Dial Across UVA, which is kind of relevant to what we’re doing. And it’s interesting because we have to sit down with students and faculty—well not many faculty, but some—and staff members to discuss university issues or things that are of interest to the university.
E: Wow, when did you start this?
K: Just this semester.
E: Oh that’s really cool. So what year are you then?
K: I’m a third year.
E: Very nice. And what are you majoring in?
K: Linguistics and minor in media studies.
E: Oh very cool, very cool. Okay, so why don’t we start talking about the resignation. Could you tell me where you were and what you thought when you first heard of the resignation?
K: Sure, I think I was actually home in Northern Virginia, just spending the summer kind of relaxing, not doing much at all. So my usual routine was just to get up, check my email, and of course I did that on the particular day that we got the email of telling us of Sullivan’s resignation so that was the first I heard of it. So I was just alone, so I didn’t get to talk to anyone about it for a little while. But after the events unfolded I started to talk to my friends and a little bit with my parents about it.
E: And what did you guys take note of from the email, most of all? If anything?
K: I think at first it was just…of course there was the shock of, “How could this happen?” Nothing would have indicated that there was any trouble leading up to this resignation, so a little bit of, a little bit of it was shock but I think almost immediately, I thought you can’t just do this at a public university and so I felt kind of incensed and upset at it, the way like, the process that it was carried out. Not really even whether Teresa Sullivan deserved to be ousted, as some people say, or did not. It was more the process of how it happened that really kind of struck me as not right at all.
E: Yeah. So what specifically about it?
K: Well, like we were discussing earlier, openness, or lack of openness and the lack of transparency, and maybe this is more like conspiracy theory thinking, but also the fact that it happened right in the middle of summer, just seemed convenient for the powers that be, but not convenient for student and reacting to it. So I guess those combined did not bode well in my opinion for the BOV or the rector and why I got more involved as the event unfolded.
E: So how did you get involved?
K: Well, like I said, at first I was in Northern Virginia kind of not doing anything. I think for the first week to the first week and a half I was just following it through online sources, news media, things like that. But actually, during the second half of June, I had to come back here to Charlottesville for work, so I came back and I think I attended two rallies, the rally for transparency and the one that she was actually reinstated at so after I came back I was actually able to go out and show my support visibly. But before that I also I got into the petition sort of thing, like I got into the petition that I think Suzy McCarthy started to reinstate Sullivan and say that the community didn’t have any confidence in the Board of Visitors for doing this. And then I think at some point I might have sent an email to the governor being a little bit strongly worded about “Why, you can’t reappoint? Why, what happened?” Of course, more professional than that, just whatever I could I guess, just a satellite capacity, not being here.
E: Yeah, so when you actually did attend the rallies, what kind of what hit you most about it? What struck a nerve or a chord or whatever with you?
K: Well I think, well of course it was in the summer and I did not even expect such a huge turnout so just the fact that there were literally like a couple thousand people at the rallies was surprising in itself an really sort of validated that this was something that we should be concerned about and something that is of importance. And then also, I think the mix of students and alumni and faculty that I saw at those rallies, because I just didn’t think that that there were events that we all could sort of rally together as a group so that was good to see that it was a community thing and not just a student and faculty thing.
E: Yeah definitely. And so do you think that being at the rallies gave you a stronger feeling or opinion one way or another than stories you were reading from various places?
K: You know, it might be kind of surprising, but I think going to the rallies might not have served that much good for me because prior to doing so I felt more, I guess motivated to do something, but once I started going to the rallies I thought “well, I did something. I guess I can relax now.” So in a way, I kind of feel, when I look back on it, I kind of feel bad for easing up my support of the cause after going to the rallies. It was obviously a good thing to do, in my opinion, to show that support by going there. But, at the same time, I think it kind of gave me a false sense of comfort, like “Oh, I did my part and now I’m done.”
E: So, do you think that kind of was heightened by the fact that you were at the rally when Sullivan was reinstated?
K: Yeah exactly. The most amazing moment was, of course, when she came out, and it was revealed that she was reinstated and everyone was just so happy that I think tat happiness of the reinstatement, at least for the people that were there, that were advocating for it, kind of over-shadowed the fact that we still didn’t have any answers or anything and I think the part of the process that was addressed was not the important part. The reinstatement of Sullivan, still, I don’t think is what matters, it’s how it happened and how the governance structure continues to function at UVA. Like I said earlier, I don’t know if the conversation of whether she deserved to be let go or not is a worthy one of having. Of course, they’re asking some of the important, but I think there’s so much subjectivity there that we could be having a more fruitful discussion if we were talking about the governance of UVA.
E: Right, yeah, that’s very true. So kind of going off that, even though you just said you don’t want to talk about why, but in your opinion, since it is subjective, why do you think that she was asked to resign?
K: Wow, I think there are so many reasons, but the ones that spring to mind, first of all, I think are the trends of privatization of the university and it just doesn’t seem like she is the kind of president or educator that wants to wholeheartedly jump into that scheme of the university, I think she still upholds a liberal education as the most important, connecting with the students. Like it’s been said that during her first two, very short years, she’s been more visible on campus and with students than Casteen has been before, and Casteen is often cited as this great figure who fundraised so well for us, and I think that she was just different from that model and that model is, I guess, what the BOV was looking for primarily.
E: So do you think that the fact that she is so present on campus and community wide, and with her focus on education rather than fundraising, do you think the support of the community’s similar shared values had to do with the reinstatement at all?
K: I think to an extent it may have, but at the same time I just don’t think it’s very possible for a president of such a big university to have so many personal connections to others that they would understand what she’s about, and for those reasons to turn out for her in support of her. So personally, I still think it was the process rather than qualities of Teresa Sullivan herself and what she’s been doing.
E: Why she was reinstated?
K: Well, why she had to resign.
E: So then why do you think she was reinstated?
K: I don’t know, it’s difficult to say because we, like I keep saying, we still don’t have any answers. Part of me thinks BOV picked the lesser of two unfavorable situations. I say that it’s the lesser of unfavorable situations because there’s still a problem, but with reinstating Sullivan, kind of smoothen out some of the opposition to the BOV in that I guess some might be under the impression that since they reinstated her, everything is how we want it to be and there’s nothing else to worry about. So, in a way, I think this may be a move to ensure that there will be no more turmoil than there was, but not to erase the turmoil.
E: So, you’ve talked a lot about governance and how that’s the root of the problem, so can you explain more specifically what about the governance at UVA is so problematic?
K: Well I think one of the things this whole episode really taught me first of all, was how crazy the governance of UVA is. Like before this I didn’t even realize what the BOV was, what they did, what kind of power they had, and that they were appointed by the governor, like, in total and that they had such monumental power over the university. So I think just to begin with, the process of appointing the Board of Visitors, who have so much power, is flawed in that it’s all appointed by the governor, effectively the state. Meanwhile, we only get like 5 or so, 5% or so of our funding from the state so it seems like a very big imbalance between how much like financial support the state is offering us and how much power they have over us.
E: So do you have any suggestions on how that could possibly be better in the future?
K: Personally, I would completely overhaul the way that the BOV is appointed. It’s not to say that I have an outlined better version of how that would happen, but I just don’t think it’s fair or realistic the way it’s been going on.
E: And so do you think that this problem in governance, do you think there’s any sort of trend, or do you think that university—that UVA—is the only one with this problem or is it all or a national or even a global issue that we should be addressing?
K: I think to a large extent it must be a wider issue. It’s not like we’re an anomaly and one of the things that we keep hearing is that other universities across the nation are looking at UVA and how UVA responds to this as a, I guess, a guide or even a foreshadowing of how things will be. A lot of the same sort of troubles are happening across the nation and other universities where they have to balance between, you know, traditional forms of funding maybe from the state and having to secure their own funding from private means. So I think that’s one of the biggest issues that plays into this and that’s definitely not something that’s unique to us, it’s just, I guess, the way our country is functioning currently.
E: Yeah, so, you said UVA could serve possibly as a guide, so what do you think of how things were handled or weren’t handled here, how do you think that could help other universities facing similar issues?
K: Well I’m really glad for how UVA has come out in support of Sullivan, and at the same time against how the BOV handled this, so I think that in itself shows students, at least at UVA and I believe more widely as well, do care that they’re not just going to a university for a product, to buy an education, like they do care about what’s happening and about the university that they’re at and the other thing is, one of the ways we can impact the future for the better, going from this is, to reaffirm our values and I think this episode really makes us think of what those values are. I think prior to what happened this summer I cant imagine a lot of people questioning or wondering what the purpose of a university is, out loud, with their peers and so forth, but now that it’s kind of threatened, we have to think about it more vocally and consciously, so I think at least there will be at least like the positive effect of reaffirming those values we have.
E: Definitely, and more specifically, about UVA and UVA’s values, do you think that that will play a part in kind of fixing, to some extent, the problems that we saw this summer?
K: I think there are some parts of UVA that have great potential for that, like the honor system for example, we talked about it and, that’s something that is a clear value that’s very important to the community and if the honor system is really upheld that could be something that the BOV has to answer for, because I believe that actions are not consistent with the honor system, and if a significant amount of UVA students and community members also believe that, that could improve the situation, that could bring more responsibility to the BIV in the future and they wouldn’t be able to behave as badly as they have.
E: Yeah, could you name specifically how they were kind of…sorry I’m just gonna say that again. Could you name more specifically what violations they, you think that they made to the honor code?
K: I think implicit in the honor code, of course the honor code is kind of limited in that it says that we will not, as university students lie, cheat, steal, will be honest, in essence. I think implicit in that is community of trust and honesty, which, if the BOV does not disclose their reasoning for such major decisions, I think that blatantly breaks down that community and what kind of trust can we have in them if their honesty is lacking?
E: Right, so do you think that this has made, that the lacking of the honor code on the part of the BOV, do you think that it’s affected the university in any lasting way?
K: I actually don’t think it’s affected the university negatively, precisely because of the reactions we saw to it, which I think confirm that the students do not condone what has been done, they do not agree with that sort of behaviors, so I think it has made us a little bit stronger. But I think that’s also contingent upon students and community members continuing to express those beliefs and hold others to those standards.
E: Yeah, so what do you think of the disparity between, kind of, how the student body upholds the honor code and how the Board of Visitors upholds it?
K: Well, the Board of Visitors is…I don’t know if all of them are UVA students, so I don’t know if that has something to do with it. I don’t know, I wouldn’t want to generalize that it does, but I don’t know, do they have to sign the honor code before they take their office spots? I don’t know! So it would be interesting to find out, of course, I just think because they’re not here at all times, they’re not in this culture frequently, the UVA like honor code culture, perhaps they’re just not as affected by it. Because as students, this is something that’s so present in our lives, like every time we take a test we have to sign the honor code. Everywhere we go, like every classroom or building has the honor code up, I don’t know if that affects us much, but in my ideal world I think it does.
E: Yeah, I think so too. But do you think that in the eyes of those, maybe not at UVA, do you think that it’s changed their opinion of the university at all?
K: That’s difficult to say since I’m at UVA, but I would imagine that if I were not here it would make me a little skeptical, that there’s this university that has potential for sudden disturbance, it doesn’t seem to show a constancy that I would want to have at a university. It would just be…it would make me nervous I think if I were not part of this university and perhaps had the opportunity to visit or come here, I would just wonder if there could be such sudden turmoil, what else can happen? So it’s just unstable, and I don’t think instability is the best thing at a university.
E: So what do you think are the biggest kind of realizations about the public university that we can take from the events in June?
K: Well it’s interesting because they…the University of Virginia is public in name of course, but effectively very much private, I think 5-10% of our funding. So I think, kind of pessimistically, is says public universities are not as highly valued as we assumed maybe beforehand. They’re not as protected, I guess, by the government or by the states that they’re in, as at least I imagine them to be. So I guess this kind of brings that to mind. But I guess in a positive way that it’s better to be aware of it and do things to insure the survival of the university—the public university that is—than to not be aware and to have it slip away somehow.
E: Okay so I guess kind of going backwards a little bit—how would you characterize a beginning, middle, and end for the effects and the actual event itself?
K: Well I think the beginning, and it’s probably very far back, maybe when trends of public and private education started switching in such a way that we started to have less support form the state, at which point we were more reliant on outside funding and therefore had to change our structure of our university, of course we couldn’t just be safe under the state funding that we had. So I think that’s the beginning, which essentially led to changes in the structure and governance of the university, which like I mentioned previously, now dictates the kind of person we must have as president, or that the BOV believes we must have as president, hence why I think Teresa Sullivan was asked to resign because she was not that kind of person they envisioned, broadly speaking, and I guess that’d be the middle. In terms of the end, I hope there isn’t, there is not an end yet, although some people might think the reinstatement was an end of sorts, I don’t think it is, I think it was more like a band aid on the problem, so I wouldn’t finalize the story I would just say that it’s a struggle that keeps going.
E: Yeah, so do you think that the struggle could ever be won, like you said, you just voiced some pessimistic opinions about the public educational system, how do you think it will stay afloat?
K: That’s a good question. I mean there are very big trends that are working in opposite directions, so I don’t know if I can answer that, I just think I would vocalize hope in response to what happened this summer because now people are more aware of what’s happening and I think maybe that’s the first step to saving some of what we have here, just being aware that it’s what we want and if we want to keep it we have to fight for it.
E: Yeah, so you think that the masses could win out over the…I don’t want to say the “authoritarian ruler” but something along those lines?
K: Well, the masses I think are the source of power for the authoritarian rulers, so if the masses change their minds, then I think the so-called rulers don’t have the power they once had.
E: Yeah, very true. I’m trying to think if there’s anything else we should touch on…but I think we’ve kind of covered it all, so thank you very much for your time and that concludes the interview.