Last week, Del. David Ramadan suggested it was time for the tenure of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan to come to an end. While we deeply appreciate our colleague’s concern for the university and his desire to combat sexual assault on college campuses, we disagree with his conclusion and are concerned that his focus on one person detracts from what is needed to confront the critical challenges our universities now face. In fact, we believe Sullivan not only continues to have the confidence of the university community and the Board of Visitors, but also enjoys a positive and productive relationship with the General Assembly as a whole.
Ramadan is right that Sullivan and U.Va. have faced a series of unique and unprecedented challenges in recent years. The abductions and murders of Morgan Harrington and Hannah Graham, both of which occurred off-Grounds; the two unfortunate and in hindsight obviously avoidable incidents involving the Alcohol Beverage Control and university students (again, these incidents occurred off-Grounds); and the sensational controversy over the now retracted Rolling Stone article would unsettle even the steadiest of ships.
But instead of being unsettled and retreating, President Sullivan, the Board of Visitors, and leaders at the university joined with the community and the legislature to act. Sullivan and the Board convened stakeholders throughout the university to address sexual assault, a serious problem that afflicts not just this university, but college campuses across this nation. During the past year, the university launched training and awareness campaigns on Grounds, added a police substation at the university corner to enhance safety, improved lighting and camera systems, hired more staff to provide proper counseling and support to survivors and implemented online education modules on alcohol and sexual violence.
Once the Rolling Stone allegations were discredited, it would have been easy for the university to withdraw, arguing that the problem was overblown. Instead, Sullivan, the Board and the university community pressed on, working with the legislature to produce three new laws that will likely be seen as national models of how states can navigate the complexities of federal law to produce an environment where survivors get appropriate support and control their own destiny while reporting serious offenses.
We know how difficult these bills were to construct because we worked with a number of our legislative colleagues on all three; they were extremely complex undertakings, took countless hours and could never have been done without the complete cooperation of the university and its president. While no legislation is perfect, we believe these laws will make a difference.
We encourage Ramadan to reflect on the statement of Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, writing in the summary of the Department of Education’s recently completed compliance review of the university, that “President Sullivan’s leadership in crafting an exemplary new policy to address sexual violence and sexual harassment and in confirming her continuing commitment to comprehensive work to assure a safe learning environment at U.Va. sets just the right tone for her students.”
Clearly, work remains to be completed to combat sexual assault on our campuses. But we should give credit where it is due, and our colleague simply missed the point in his criticism.
Finally, it is also important to remember the role the General Assembly plays with respect to higher education governance. We help set policy, provide funding and have an important oversight role; but, it is not our role to micromanage the affairs of our colleges and universities. We appoint and ensure that the most qualified and capable leaders are at the helm of each school’s Board of Visitors. U.Va. has an outstanding Board comprising some of the commonwealth’s most distinguished citizens in whose wisdom and judgment we have tremendous confidence. This Board recently extended President Sullivan’s contract by two years without a single dissenting vote. The university has a new strategic plan in place, whose implementation will further enhance its reputation as one of the best universities in the country. Demanding the resignation of the president is not the right thing to do, will do nothing to advance the strategic plan and only complicate our efforts to improve higher education at U.Va. and our other universities!
by David Toscano and Jimmie Massie
Jimmie Massie represents the 72rd District in the Virginia House of Delegates, is chairman of the Higher Education Subcommittee and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.