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10 Aug 2017
Audio Overview
John Alexander

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Transcript of Interview With Sunny Taylor

0:01 All right, so this is Rachel Boag, and I’m interviewing Sunny Taylor for the UVa MDST 3559 (Documenting UVa’s Future) course, and the date is the 11th of October, and it is 3:30 [PM] and we are in Clemons 203. So- all right- so- to start out, just how did you come to be at UVa? What’s your role here, and…?

0:36 I began working with the UVa-related foundation that manages the University’s endowment about six and a half, seven years ago, and one of the benefits of working there was they did have some education assistance, and I decided to go back to school. So in the fall of 2010 I enrolled in the- it’s affectionately called the BIS program, which stands for Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies, and it’s through the School of Continuing and Professional Studies. So I’m technically a fourth-year student (laugh), but as I mentioned originally my affiliation was really with the foundation that manages the endowment.

1:27 What is the name of the foundation?

1:29 It’s- the abbreviation is UVIMCO, which stands for University of Virginia Investment Management Company. And I actually gave notice and stopped working at the end of June this past summer. Had a lot going on in my life, and I had to make some choices- I’d been going to school and working full-time for about two and a half years, and I decided that maybe I was spreading myself a little too thin. So right about the time that the events of the summer happened I’d already given notice at the foundation, and we were also going through a family crisis. The timing was such that literally over those seventeen days or so we had brought my father-in-law home from the hospital- he was terminally ill- and during those seventeen days we brought him home, and he passed, and we had a funeral. So although I was very much aware of what was going on, I just couldn’t participate in any way, shape or form.   I was getting the emails and somewhat keeping my finger on the pulse, but really very superficially because we were very much engrossed with family matters over those seventeen days. It’s kind of uncanny, really.

3:11  So when did you first hear about the events in June?

3:15 Well I got the email from the Rector on that Sunday, and that was literally the day before we brought him home from the hospital, so I knew about it, and I was very concerned for my coworkers because of what they do- they manage the endowment, and usually something of this magnitude I figured there’d be some fallout and there would be, you know, media contacting, you know, the group that manages the endowment and trying to get some information. But I don’t think that was the case- they were very much on the fringes, and didn’t get a lot of feedback or questions during this whole thing.

4:04 So while you were at home managing the- with your father-in-law-how did you keep track [of the June events? Did you use Internet articles, or TV, or…?

4:17 I primarily was checking email still, fairly regularly, because although I had given notice and was at point taking personal leave time to stay at home I still obviously felt very obligated to the foundation and was checking emails regularly, daily. So I saw anything that came out that was an official correspondence from the University. And then other than that, not a lot. Not a lot. I just had too much else going on to be even, you know, watching news, or I – I didn’t know anything about the Facebook. So I wasn’t that- tuned in over those eighteen days, unfortunately. That was why (laugh) – since the one thing I was doing was checking email and therefore going to the UVa website, like, the minute the announcement came out about this class- it was on the main UVa website on the very, you know, first page, one of the headliners, I just- glommed onto it, right away, and thought “Now that’s something I would love to do. I didn’t get to pay much attention while it was happening, but here’s an opportunity for me to get involved and learn about it. It might be kind of after the fact on some of those details, but… ” It was, you know, immediately I was really keen on getting involved with the class.

6:03 So when the reinstatement happened, how did you find out about it and did your level of engagement or your level of following the events change?

6:14 Well, my initial- I’ll back up. My initial reaction when I read the email about the resignation was that either President Sullivan was terribly ill, or she had done something terribly unethical. In my mind at that very moment that I read that email those were the only two possible explanations for an email that was so vague, that gave so little detail to this entire community- and so I thought therefore that it had to be either intensely personal, as in she was ill, (and that could have been also just a side effect of what was going on in my personal life, that to me at that point anything bad that happened had to do with health) or that it was so horribly embarrassing that they just weren’t giving any details, so it just never even occurred to me that it could be anything other than that. Then when the reinstatement happened- well, first I should say- then we get the list, from the Rector, of the concerns- the laundry list of concerns-and I read those and was kind of skeptical. I felt as if –hmm- A) the president had only been here -year and a half? Not very long. And it’s really difficult to do things of that magnitude in a really short amount of time. I questioned if the Board of Visitors had been responsible for hiring her, and if they knew that they wanted that magnitude of transformation, then where did they get their wires crossed? They had to know who she was when they’d just hired her a y- whatever, a year and a half, two years before, so how could they have changed their minds so quickly, that she was the right person for the job. So that was a big red flag for me, cause here’s this long laundry list that certainly you must have known you wanted to do a year and a half ago when you hired this woman, you certainly knew what her credentials were- what’s changed? And they also were just things that were- what I would say is so systemic, they’re deeply rooted, and if you’ve ever tried to change (laugh) the way a large group does things, it’s really difficult to do. Change is very hard for people, which is kind of ironic, because that’s what life is all about- it’s constant change! But when you get a big group of people together who are used to doing things a certain way implementing big change is - just tremendously difficult. So I had a lot of sympathy for the position that they had put her in, that they wanted her to do some really major things, and I understood her explanation of being, you know, more slow and methodical about trying to make some of these changes and getting people on board- cause that’s been my personal experience, is that successful change doesn’t – isn’t top-down. You have to have the top supporting it, and saying this is where we’re going, but for it to really take root, it’s gotta come from the bottom up, you gotta have everybody on board. So, as I say, I just had a lot of sympathy for her position when I read that list and then, ultimately when she was reinstated I thought that that was wonderful. I wondered, frankly, if I would have been a big enough person to take the job back like she was. I was extremely impressed with her leadership throughout the whole entire thing. She never made a derogatory comment, one that I ever read or heard or saw. And you know, she was willing to step down because she thought that was the best thing to do for the University community in trying to reduce or minimize all of the stress and so forth- and I just really admired that, but I was elated that she was reinstated, and that she (laugh)- took the job.

11:50 Alright, so how would you frame the timing of this event- beginning, middle, end, is it still going on, is it- is it over, “over” in quotes?

12:03 Education is an interesting institution (laugh)- and again, change comes slowly, so I would say that… this is something that’s been in the works for a long time on a national scale, and our society changes so rapidly and obviously technology is a big, big part of that and the way our economy runs and so you know, I think that what happened here at UVa is an amazing catalyst, kind of, for the whole conversation across the nation- is that everybody knew there were problems, and they’ve actually been talking about them probably for ten or twenty years- you know, a lot people foresaw these issues. It’s not difficult at all to project that when the economy went south and we had, you know, the financial crisis and we have less people working and less tax income for the state and so on and so forth- it’s not difficult at all to connect the dots and to see where this was going to lead- it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that (laugh). So no big surprise there- I think that the surprise was in this particular academic university community just saying “Well, we’re not going to… just go along with this decision.” I think in part because of the way they went about it… but also that there’s just something bigger at stake here, you know, and this community said “Okay, the buck’s going to stop here. Let’s address this as a community and get this school back on board.” So- where are we? We’re still in the middle of it. And we always will be, cause again it’s the nature (laugh) of anything that you do, it’s- there’s just constant change. So hopefully we’re leading the way for the rest of the nation and other schools, universities to figure out how they’re going to resolve some of these issues.

14:52 So you mentioned something bigger at stake. What- how would you characterize that?

14:55 (Laugh)… Boy, I think there’s a big debate on how you do reconcile the different kinds of education- the college education, the liberal arts education, versus the need to further knowledge with research and the research university and, you know, can those two cohabitate well together?, and how do you do that? and how does it change the dynamic of the administration and the finance and you know, all of the facilities needed and you know it’s just- it’s huge! (laugh) So I think that’s what’s at stake, cause those are decisions that – as a country, even- we need to make.  Before this happened I had felt for a lot of years that high school education was deficient in the United States, but especially now, being a student and talking to other students who went to public high school- obviously I’m not a traditional fourth-year, I’m a returning adult student- and I talked to people who had outstanding public high school education, and not very far from here, in Charlottesville, Virginia, there are rural counties where that’s just not the case, you know. So I’ve for a long time felt that things were very unequal in the country on that level and now I’m just seeing how all of this kind of feeds into – it’s kind of a domino effect- that we have issues as well in higher education. They’re a little different, but I think ultimately what is at stake is as a nation how strongly do we feel about education and what are we gonna do to make major, major changes on all levels.

17:23 So were you expecting the level of response that, that did come out from the students, from the Charlottesville community, the alums, the alumni?  Their response to this?

17:37 I wouldn’t say I expected it, but I also wasn’t surprised. I’ve lived in Nelson County, which is south of here, it’s the next county south, for – I don’t know, forty years. And this area, in general, I think tends to draw a really unique type of people- very grassroots-oriented. Nelson, I think, is very much known for arts and crafts, its artisans. It’s still extremely rural- there’s like one stoplight in the whole county, right? (laugh) And it’s only thirty miles from here. Four hundred square miles, one stoplight. And then here we are, this close to Charlottesville. So I wasn’t surprised because I think that- and we see this in our classmates, too, we have some people in the class that aren’t traditional students, they’re part of the [Charlottesville] community, and they have experience with activism because they, you know, they probably were, whatever, in their teens and twenties in the sixties and seventies when there was a lot of that type of thing going on. They… they, for them, that’s normal, you know, and it’s different as you move with generations, and if they, if you don’t grow up experiencing activism and riots and demonstrations, it’s not normal to you and maybe you’re less likely to participate. So I wasn’t surprised that the faculty and the community showed up- I was a little surprised that the students did. And again I think that’s just because to me it’s kind of a generational thing, but I don’t know. That’s just my opinion.

19:42 So why do you think the students came? We had been studying, talking in class about some cases in which that wasn’t the case.

19:50 Right, I know- you know, and there’s a lot of speculation on the timing of the whole event- the fact it was summertime, and obviously a lot of students weren’t even here, they were home for the summer, but I think alumni was a big part of that as well. I’ve been doing some reading lately on how different generations are categorized, and there was one about – I don’t know, forty years ago that was I think called, referred to as “The Silent Generation”, and they’re actually referring to the current generation of what would be college-age students as also like the second Silent Generation. And we talked about that in class too, that sometimes people just don’t feel like their voice carries, that they really have much impact… and so I think in a lot of cases they don’t show up. But I have to say what I believe is different here is that it is… the University of Virginia.  It’s Thomas Jefferson’s university. And that just – I mean, I get goosebumps just, you know, talking about it- there’s this whole- it’s like you were saying[when Sunny interviewed me], the Honor Code and the history and the philosophy behind the University of Virginia for whatever reason, boy, you know, two hundred years later people still really internalize that, and the students do. So they must have showed up because, you know, they love it, they cherish it. And that’s – it’s when you care enough about something to protect it, to preserve it, then you show up.  I think that’s what happened.

21:54 So the Jeffersonian ideals, then, played into how the students perceived it, how they responded?

22:02 I can only guess, because you know I wasn’t actually there and I’m of a different generation, and I think that’ll be one of the fascinating things about doing these interviews, is talking to the students and saying “Did you go, and why? Why did you or why didn’t you?” – to understand that better.

22:26 Do you think that the level of student involvement in things like UJC(the Judiciary Committee), Honor Committee, that sort of thing had an impact above and beyond just the existence of the Honor Code and the existence of the Jeffersonian ideals behind the university? Do you think that…

22:45 I would, I would have to assume that absolutely. The level of involvement of this student body- they probably naturally feel a little more empowered because of that level of involvement and possibly that’s a factor too in them showing up.

23:10 So to switch topics a little bit, what do you think about the role of money in the way that this crisis unfolded? I called it a “crisis” because that’s been in use in the media pretty often…

23:22 Mm-hm.

23:25 Cause you said you had worked with the- with UVIMCO, with the company that manages the endowment.

23:34 Hmm. I’m going back up and start with the role of leadership, because that’s just a topic that’s part of why I took the class too, because to me a lot of what happened this summer reflected on different leadership styles and a way that plays into the question about money, only because in my mind the people that govern on the Board of Visitors tend to come from backgrounds- business backgrounds- in which there is a ton of money. A lot of those people make considerable political contributions to campaigns and I think possibly that their mindset is a little different coming from a corporate or business background than- you know a lot of them obviously also are alumni, and yes they came to the University of Virginia, and they probably got their bachelor’s from the College of Arts and Sciences, you know. They started there, but they maybe went on to be Darden MBAs, and then, you know, work in financial sectors or real estate sectors and so on… So they are very money-oriented… and that kind of goes back to that whole conversation of as a nation  what’s important in education- are we here to educate people or are we here to produce people who can make money? What is this all about? (laugh) Or is it about both? Can it be about both? I think that’s the assumption we’re operating under, is that there are people who go to college still to read classics, and to learn for the joy of learning, knowledge for knowledge’s sake. And then there are some people who need to go to college for a more practical end- they know that they plan on getting a specific job, and earning a specific income (laughs), and living a specific lifestyle, and they get out of college in four years, hopefully. So yeah, they say, what, money makes the world go round? So probably at the heart of everything there is a money issue, but I put leadership above that. I think that that has to come first, cause you know, how you – especially when you have that much responsibility, to govern an institution like the University of Virginia.

26:38   So, taking the lead off that, the BoV, the composition of the BoV has been something brought up- that it doesn’t have a faculty member, that the members are political appointees – and I say “political appointees” in that they’re appointed by the Governor.

26:56 Mm-hm.

26:58 So how do you feel about how that stands? Do you think it should be changed, do you think that it may have contributed to the development of these events? Do you think that the changes that have been made, the advisory members, have affected it or have improved it or made it worse?

27:20 Ummm.

27:21 And that’s a multi-part question, so if you want to just do part of it that’s fine… (laugh)

27:23 Yes, that’s fine (laugh) .  I think that it would be nice if the board that governs the University of Virginia reflected more the constituents that it serves and you know, if I just took myself as an example, you know, most of you know, my background has probably been less than middle-class socio-economic status. I’m a student coming to the University later in life- it’s very non-traditional, and it may be diversity, more diversity, is needed in the Board so it’s not quite– it doesn’t have quite the- what feels like a corporate mindset. I mean, I think the whole way that this went a- was gone about – the resignation, or the forced resignation was approached would have been fine in the corporate world- and nobody would have raised an eyebrow, and that’s what you would have done: you would’ve gotten the votes, and it’d all be over- but this isn’t the corporate world. This is the academic world, and not only is it academic, it’s the Jefferson world (laugh) – it’s a completely different… and it- I’m a little dumbfounded that they didn’t recognize that, that the people who sat on the Board, you know- and I think there’s just a lot that probably went on that we’ll never know because it does appear, as more information came out, that possibly not as many people were on board on the Board with this decision as the president was lead to believe. And apparently that is the case, because she was, she was reinstated. So- yeah, I could see where having, again, just a more diverse population on that board and maybe, you know, not having them appointed politically would have some benefit, or at least not all of them. I know there have been some additions, but I’m not sure that that’s enough.  I think you need more people who are academically-minded, who have chosen that as their calling, not running real-estate companies or running private-equity businesses or- I couldn’t tell you what all of them do but you know, people who have chosen- and I actually, I think that was some of the current, recent appointees, right? Like we have a retired University president who was just recently- was it JMU? Anyway, so I think that’s a good move, and more of that is in order.

30:45 Well, I think that’s about what I’ve got for this interview, but is there anything else that you want to talk about?

30:58 No, I thank you very much for the opportunity, Rachel.

31:00 Thank you too, thank you for your time.