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Greg: Ok hi I am Greg Lewis G-R-E-G L-E-W-I-S. We are in the Cavalier Daily conference room at the University of Virginia. It is Thursday, October 11, 2012 and it’s 4:21pm. And I am here with Abby Mergenemeier. Could you spell your name, Abby?
Abby: Yes. A-B-B-Y M-E-R-G-E-N-M-E-I-E-R.
G: Alright. So, Abby, I guess we’re going to be talking a little bit about the Teresa Sullivan thing that happened this summer and kind of your reactions and your thoughts and your feelings. So we’re going to go ahead and get started. Could you kind of describe your role at the university, what you’re involved in, um, how you came here, how you got to the university I guess?
A: Well let’s see. I’m originally from right outside of Richmond, VA, Montpelier to be exact. My parents are both from Kansas and when to KU, so when it came time to, um, apply for colleges – I’m the oldest child as well so I had to kind of figure it out for myself and for the most part I just kind of, like, followed what my friends were doing and applied where I wanted and, um, I applied to some random schools but before applying too, my dad and I toured the University and I immediately just felt that feeling like ‘Oh I want to go here, I feel like I belong here’, so I applied and thank goodness I got in.
And I am a third year now and I am a Modern Studies major, which is a concentration within the English Department and it’s interdisciplinary so I have to take 12 hours outside of the English Department as well as the normal English requirements and then fourth year I have to write a thesis which I’m really excited about. I’m doing it on post-colonial African literature so…
G: Wow that sounds really interesting.
A: Yea it’s very out there but I’m super stoked about it. And I’m a Media Studies minor so I’d like to go into journalism, possibly broadcast journalism of some type. So that’s what I’d like to do.
I’ve written for The Cavalier Daily since being a first year; I was the news associate for a while and then now I’m trying to help with the Multimedia section. And, um, I’ve done some Christian organizations while here. And I guess that sums up what takes up most of my time here and involvement in the university.
G: So, um, how did you hear about, um, the Teresa Sullivan resignation when it happened and kind of what was your reaction to it as a student?
A: I was actually here over the summer because I interned with the Athletic Department Video Services. So it was a Sunday morning, I was sleeping in, having to get up, um right about 10ish when I guess the email came out and I looked at my email account. First I was about to delete it because, I don’t know, it just looked like something…
G: Spam mail?
A: Yeah spam mail…
G: From the university
A: …But then I can’t exactly remember what the headline or subject line of the email was, but it said something about Sullivan resigns, or is gone or whatever. So I opened it up and first I just quickly scanned over it because I was just kind of flustered, I thought it was a hoax or something, I was like ‘what’s going on?’ but then I read it again and I immediately called my friend who was living in the apartment complex right next door to me and he was there this summer too and I was like ‘look at your email is this real?’
And so we talked about it a little bit, hung up the phone, I don’t know I just went on Facebook I guess and some statuses started popping up. And then I went on like Washington Post trying to figure it out, but no one was breaking information yet. So then I just kind of went about my day. To be honest I guess I kind of just forgot about it I don’t know that first day after a few hours. But of course the next day, as the next couple days kept on coming, I read about it on The Cavalier Daily, The Washington Post a lot so, um, I was like able to keep up with it there. And I made one or two Cavalier Daily and Washington Post articles my Facebook statuses because I just thought it was fascinating too.
I don’t know, I guess as a student too my reaction as a student was, I don’t know, I didn’t really have any connection to Sullivan in any way but I was upset that she was - I don’t know – that she resigned I guess because I was like ‘oh she was cute,’ I liked her. That’s honestly how I felt! Um so I was kind of upset about it and I just - it was very, I mean she was signed on to stay here for two years and she hadn’t yet and I just thought it was very fishy so I automatically kind of pinned the Board of Visitors as being bad guys and Sullivan being the good guy and that’s kind of how the media, for the most part, painted the whole situation in days to come. So yeah I’m really happy with the outcome and what not but yeah…
G: Yeah. Did you have a sense of kind of like how the university worked before, had you heard of the Board of Visitors, did you know kind of what Teresa Sullivan actually did?
A: Yeah, honestly, I knew that there was a Board of Visitors and I knew that they were kind of the ones who basically ran everything a little above Teresa, is that correct? But I really didn’t know who was the rector, I hadn’t heard any of those names before, I didn’t know anything about it or that there was even kind of corruption, I just honestly, the thought of that hadn’t even crossed my mind so yup I didn’t look into it anymore.
G: And when you were talking to your friends, kind of, how did that dialogue go? How did they react and how did you react and how did you kind of make sense of what happened?
A: We were both just very surprised by it and couldn’t believe that it was real and then as we were reading on it was just kind of ‘ok Dragas is the bad guy’ and then we were just constantly reading, you know, the article by Dragas’ sister and like ‘oh my gosh she sounds ridiculous.’ And pointing out stuff like that.
And actually in the middle of the entire saga, I actually went home because my family was going on vacation to the beach. So I was home first for one night and I went to one of my neighbor’s graduation party. And at the graduation party there were two parents who were UVA alums there and they approached me because they knew I was a student. They asked me, ‘so, what do you think about what’s going on over there? How’s it like there on grounds?’ And you know, ‘Are all the students there?’ And I said, ‘well, you know, there are like a good number of students; and there’s going to be a rally tomorrow but I can’t be there because I’m at the beach,’ which I was really upset about. Because I wanted to go to the rally but couldn’t. Um but yeah honestly it was funny hearing from alumni too, that oh like they were like as interested too. I didn’t realize that it was an issue that kind of went beyond Grounds and Charlottesville – I didn’t realize how large of an issue it had become.
Because also, when I was at the beach - my family and I - we happened to just go into a drug store one day and I looked over at the newsstand and five of the six newspapers – the front page headline and picture above the fold was about the University of Virginia and about something, um having resigned and ouster and what not. There’s a big picture of her, you know, climbing up the steps of the Rotunda with tons of students behind her. So I grabbed the Washington Post and bought it and just read it that whole day. And I still have that newspaper just because I just thought it was so cool...
A: …that my newspaper…or that my school was on a newspaper that’s just like nationwide or even global.
G: Was that your first sense that this was kind of a big deal?
A: Yeah, yeah definitely. Because I thought it was just kind of a little thing in Charlottesville. Because I talked to a little, to a few, um friends who didn’t go to the University but then also to some of my friends who did go to the University but weren’t in Charlottesville and they just, they were upset but didn’t seem to, I don’t know, I guess have as big a part in it or really care about it as much as maybe like I or my friends who were in Charlottesville did; so it was kind of cool to see wow - this really does mean something for public education like in general and what not. So yeah I guess it was my first feeling about that.
G: So you were here for a couple days and then you…
G: …went on vacation?
G: And then did you come back during the whole crisis or…?
A: Uh yeah I’m trying to think, yeah I came back. I don’t remember exactly what day of the crisis it was because, I don’t know, I felt like even in the middle of the whole thing – there was still media going on but not as much physical activism going on on-Grounds and if there was I couldn’t go because I had to go intern over at the Athletics Department so I wasn’t even able to attend maybe like the last rally. So I guess my interest sort of even petered out towards the end of just those two weeks that the entire thing was going on.
G: I’m curious about your role with the Athletics Department. Did you get a sense - did they have any opinion on it - the people you were working with, the people you interacted with, or was it kind of just it didn’t really affect them because it was more kind of like the university above them as opposed to what they were doing in practice and stuff like that?
A: Yea it was very much - we didn’t talk about it much at all over there because they are almost a separate unit to what, you know, the Board of Visitors and the President and what not since they’re just specifically athletics. And there are three other interns along with me - two are fourth years and one is a third year along with me. And we three talked about it a little bit, but by the time that our internship really got into full swing, the saga was over with - she had been reinstated and we were just on learning new things so we didn’t think about it much at all. Which kind of now in hindsight I wish I had talked about it more but even I was just kind of like, ‘oh it’s done, it’s over, you know, nothing new.’
G: And then, so after the two weeks you said you weren’t really as much involved, you didn’t really follow the papers or anything?
A: I still did read like the Post, which I think did a really good job at covering it so they would every once in a while have an article up and I would see it, especially like in Starbucks I would walk in, happen to see the headline. Because I’m not the greatest at checking online, um, newspapers, I like the print version so I go into the coffee shop and see Washington Post and I’ll read whatever article they happened to have on her, so. My participation definitely hasn’t been as great as it was there like the very first few days when I was really interested in it, which I kind of regret.
G: What do you think you could have, like what would, if you could, you know, be there, if you could do something more to be involved, would you do something differently and what would you do, I guess?
A: Yeah it’s hard because I feel like there just aren’t a whole lot of people who are even doing that much. I mean I would be interested in just researching it more, but I don’t know. It’s hard as a student even just because we’re so busy with classes and other things, so I almost feel like, ‘oh like do I have the time to give more time to researching it all?’
G: So do you think the issue’s over then or do you think it’s still going on?
A: I think it’s still going on because there definitely is some corruption within the Board of Visitors because we really don’t know for sure down pat why they forced her to resign. So I definitely think there’s some corruption there and I’d really like to hear what that is and definitely continue to follow the issue, but as far as doing it myself and finding out stiff for myself, it sounds dumb, but I just don’t have the time – it’d be cool if someone else did it, but yeah it’s like I don’t really want to put forth the effort. I think a lot of students would probably say the same: that they’re kind of like, ‘oh I’ll read about it later, I’ll hear about it, it’s cool but it’s not my top priority to figure out what the corruption is.’
G: Do you think that’s a general sense of the University community – students, faculty - do you think it differs at all?
A: Um I’d say sadly I think the plurality of students would agree like, ‘oh it’s over’ and don’t think about it at all. I really admire those people, especially on the Cavalier Daily, who do continue to pursue this because it really isn’t over but, yeah, a lot of people think there’s a false end that, um, came along with her reinstatement.
G: What do you think then, if it’s not over, we still have to see and what needs to happen for closure to be reached?
A: Hmm that’s hard. I guess yeah… what would be the closure?
G: It’s kind of a big question.
A: It is kind of big because I would initially say, ‘oh if we found out exactly why they ousted her, but even then it’s like not a real sense of closure and it doesn’t feel like, I feel like that’s kind of anticlimactic, like we want something even bigger but I don’t know. I honestly can’t answer that.
G: Do you think that information was withheld, or you just think that there was a big sense of confusion of what happened, or do you think there’s - if more stuff came out we’d have more knowledge and maybe that would be an end?
A: Yeah I think there’s a big basis of confusion because a lot of information was withheld. I think probably actually what would provide a sense of closure would be if there was a new way to elect members of the Board and just if more transparency, like if transparency was a bigger priority of the Board. I think people would be happy and would feel more accomplished and then probably we would see an end to this really, I guess, because the main goal, all we wanted, was just more transparency from the Board so if we got that I feel like this should be over with.
G: What do you think, then, that this event and this kind of crisis that developed means for the future of UVA?
A: Well, I know when I first read about it and saw that this all was happening, especially on a large scale, written in the national newspapers, I was like, ‘wow UVA looks kind of bad right now.’ I thought it looked bad on our reputation, our traditions, and also bad on the fact that they, you know, tried to oust the first female president. And, you know, were supposed to be about innovation and, you know, change and, you know, being at the top, but even if we can’t allow our first female president to go about her way and, you know, be the president without any problems or issues from outside sources or influences - I think that’s just awful on the university, so um I don’t know, I’m just really glad we were able to resolve it in that she was reinstated.
I can’t imagine what it would be like if we just had another president and she had just cut her term short a year or what not. So yeah I think it looks poorly on us but it’s good that we got it figured out. And I think it’s kind of - it’s a good learning tool as well so I think that in the future, people will be much more wary to make such a big issue about that and I think there is now more of an incentive to be transparent. Like I feel like the BOV will not be trying to pull any stunt like this anymore. They’ll probably try to be - I’d like to think they’ll be more transparent in the future.
G: Have you seen any tangible changes at the University now in terms of like how the BOV is portrayed, how media coverage of the BOV is, how maybe things have changed on grounds – do you get a sense of any tangible change that’s happened as a result?
A: I honestly can’t, especially not from the student side, no one seems to notice anything happened. I haven’t noticed anything different in how the University runs, just from a student level I haven’t noticed anything, so…
A: Unfortunately no, uh uh.
G: Do you think that, um, this the issue is something that I guess people are interested...so you said students aren’t interested anymore but a lot of people are pegging it as kind of like UVA is the example of like what’s going to happen in the future of higher education – how do you reconcile that? That students aren’t interested but here are the media and here critics are saying and here, you know, experts are saying that this is going to happen and that the future of higher education is kind of in question because of what happened, or is an indication of the future of higher education
A: I mean I guess it just really sucks. I wish that people were more interested in it. I don’t know, I kind of have dealt with that myself - been like, ‘why aren’t more students at least knowing what happened?’ And actually weirdly enough, the other day I was with my mom and she was even like, ‘oh so I read an article in the Washington Post the other day about UVA and I didn’t realize that Sullivan had been reinstated,’ and I was thinking, ‘Mom! Like I go to this university! Like what are you…?’ Thankfully my dad knew, but yeah, I don’t know, that opened my eyes even more just like, ‘wow, like some people really just don’t know what’s going on’ and it’s really like difficult - I was sitting in the car thinking, ‘oh my gosh, like what’s going on?’ Has there not been enough media coverage really to say like, ‘ok Sullivan has been reinstated.’
Yeah I don’t know – I’m just very confused and flustered about the entire situation still so I don’t even know. And I feel like I, also, as a student, don’t really know a lot about the whole public higher education and I feel like a lot of students can say the same – they don’t really know all the issues that surround higher education - how to exactly define that term nowadays either – so, um, yeah I feel like a lot of people…yeah.
G: Do you think that people need to be, like, you know, educated more about the different issues to get an understanding? Do you think that people don’t really have a grasp of the understanding of what’s going on in higher education and what’s going on specifically here or do you think people just aren’t interested in it?
A: I think it almost needs to be, um, taught more, advertised more, reported on more because I feel like I don’t hear about it that much or it’s not really a thing that makes the front-page news unless a president is being ousted. It’s not a - it doesn’t seem to be a top priority of a lot of news or media outlets, so people don’t hear about it that much. Because it’s not too difficult of a concept to grasp, I would like to think, but who am I to say? I don’t know.
G: I guess, um, a last kind of sense I want to get is how UVA’s tradition, how UVA specifically, how this event unfolded based on the history of UVA, the traditions of UVA, the value that the University community holds, um, could you give me a sense of kind of like how that fits into like the University as a unique university and as a unique place with unique values?
A: Um UVA has a lot of tradition and just I feel like it’s always been a community that’s been respected by everyone else, which was why I was so upset when I saw that this had become so national and I felt like our reputation had almost been ruined a little bit so, I don’t know, it’s – I’d like to think that her reinstatement preserved that tradition just of, I don’t know, like persevering and coming back but, I don’t know, the tradition of almost honor and transparency was not honored on the part of the BOV, so yeah.
A: It’s just very upsetting. I like feel like it’s going to take a while before people won’t look at UVA and think, ‘oh didn’t you oust your president?’ And, you know, just about the whole crisis over that summer. I feel like it will take a while and probably like some good things to happen before people will forget about that.
G: Yeah awesome. Do you have anything else to add?
A: Not really, no
G: Awesome. Well, thanks for talking to me; I appreciate it.
A: No problem - thank you!