Edited Transcript of Hillary Hurd Interview.
October 31, 2012. 11:00am at Clemons Library.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Hainbach, here to interview Hillary Hurd. We’re recording this oral history as part of a class at UVA, Media Studies 3559, an oral history of the ouster and reinstatement, documenting UVA’s future. Hillary, I know you signed the release form here, but can you just give me your verbal consent to this interview?
Hillary: Yes, I’m consenting to this interview.
S: Okay, thank you. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here. And now, can you spell your name for us?
H: Oh. This is actually controversial. My name –
H: [Laughs.] Sorry, it’s already getting difficult. My name legally has only one “l,” but I use two. It’s a really long story… I don’t have time to give it to you.
S: Okay so…
H: So H-I-L-L-A-R-Y H-U-R-D. Hillary Hurd. That is my name.
S: Okay thank you.
H: Great. [Both laugh.]
S: Alright, so tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from?
H: I’m born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. My family is from Virginia as well. I’m a fourth year at UVA, studying Russian politics.
S: And, do you have any siblings?
H: I do. I have an older brother, Will. He graduated last year, also went to UVA. He was in the Comm. school and did global development.
S: So you have a family connection?
H: I do. My mom, ironically, my mom grew up [on] Rugby Road. My grandfather went to UVA, and so did my uncle, and my aunt works in Gilmer library, and so I have a lot of – my dad did too, a lot of family connections to this school.
S: How did you decide to come here?
H: You know, it’s interesting that you ask that. In high school, I swore that I would never go here, just because I felt like I already knew what the experience would be, because it was so familiar. I grew up coming to Charlottesville and thought that I knew this place and would be able to predict the kind of person I would graduate as. But then, as I applied to other schools and visited them, I just sort of fell in love with it, received a better financial aid package to come here than a lot of other schools I applied to, and it just seemed to make the most sense like for me emotionally and also financially.
S: Did it turn out the way you expected it to?
H: I don't think I really knew how I expected college to be. I don’t know, I really loved it, if that’s what you mean. And I think I made the right decision, but I think I’m definitely a different person graduating than I thought I’d be, and for the better, but it’s hard to predict how you’ll change in college.
S: What university organizations have you been involved with over your time here?
H: So, when I came first year, I tried to join everything I possibly could and get a feel for everything, and assumed I would stick with them all four years. But I’ve kind of jumped around a lot. I guess my major commitments [are]: I’ve been in the Jefferson Society since my first year, I’ve been in International Relations Organizations, I’m the editor-in-chief of a journal, the Wilson Journal, which is the only undergraduate publication for International Relations at UVA. And, I’ve just gotten started a lot of one-off initiatives and projects. I run the Breakfast Club which is a bi-monthly literary discussion group that meets at the Art Museum. It’s an ever-changing group of students that meet to talk about short stories and professors and TAs over breakfast in the lobby before it opens. And then I’ve organized a couple different like dinners and fundraisers. So I’ve just kind of jumped around, had my hand in a lot of different kinds of projects but I think overall just a pursuit of academic-type extracurricular has been the main theme running throughout.
S: So your main focus here at the University has been to grow academically?
H: I’ve definitely pursued different social activities too and tried to like meet as many people as possible, that’s a huge part of what college is about, but in thinking about the clubs that I’ve chosen, I just wanted to challenge myself in what knowledge I could gain as being a part of those clubs or how my world view would be altered through that participation and so that’s led me to do more like academic, debate, scholarly type activities.
S: And now, of course, you’re the student member of the Board of Visitors?
H: Yes. [Both laugh.]
S: Can you speak a little bit about that? How did you decide to apply for that, what did you know about this Board of Visitors before you joined it?
H: Not much. To be honest, I, I don’t think any student member goes into the position knowing exactly how they’re going to come out of it, or what their year is going to look like. Even in talking to past student members, which I did before I applied, it was hard to put together a coherent narrative of what the position looked like. I mean, the Board changes every year, and its members and the issues that it is confronting, and so what you end up doing as a student kind of changes along with that. I obviously knew how the Board worked in the abstract, what it’s responsibilities were vies a vie the University, how the members were appointed, and I had a pretty clear idea of what my motives were for joining, namely, I felt like, because I had shared a lot of different circles of University life, and thought a lot about what the University’s purpose was, and what my job as a student was, that I could sort of share some of those reflections to the Board. I was involved in a lot of like humanities initiatives in my second and third year and thought a lot about the purpose of the University and what it means to pursue knowledge in a more interdisciplinary way and I just wanted to be part of those conversations that were being made at a higher level about the direction of the school.
S: What do you think the purpose of the University is?
H: That’s a good question. I think there’s a lot of you know different purposes to a University, a lot of threads in that. Ultimately I think it’s to make self-educators of men, to inspire a love of learning, to transmit the history and traditions of the past, but also to ultimately foster and create new knowledge about the future, to kind of wed those two together. I’m a humanities student, so I haven’t been on a pre-professional track necessarily. Even thinking about graduate school, it’s not necessarily obvious… what job after I graduate, what I’ll be doing immediately after, but at the same time, I think another part of the University is preparing students for more pragmatic careers too. Like my brother’s in the Comm. School and had a very different UVa experience but I still think that’s part of what the mission of the school is. So there’s a lot of different parts to it… if that answers your question.
S: Definitely. And you’d mentioned representing the students to the Board of Visitors. You said that you had thought a lot about what your job as a student was, so what do you think your job as a student is, or the job of students in general is?
H: In general? Or like vis a vie the Board?
S: In general, and then… the Board.
H: I think my job as a student here is to learn as much as I possibly can from people, from professors, and from classes. And that goes back to talking about which extracurriculars I’ve been involved in. I just see it as my duty to take advantage of this place when I’m here and to know that it’s a real luxury, being able to be a student in college, and being able to be a student at UVA. So that’s how I understand my duty as a student and I guess that’s how I would convey it for everyone else or I’d say that they share that same obligation. In terms of how my job as a student to the Board is – I guess I would kind of qualify what you said about me being the student representative because I’m not in some ways. Like, my job is to represent the diversity of student opinion and to represent students but to say I’m the student representative I think would imply that I was elected by the students, chosen by them, and I wasn’t.
S: Who chose you?
H: It was a three-phased process, the first being a paper application; the second being student leaders interviewed me, along with administrators. So I guess students were involved in that part of that. But then ultimately it was a small part of the executive committee that ultimately chose me.
S: Of the board?
H: Mhm. And so, I mean, it’s not student council, it’s not elected in the same way, and so that changes how I’m supposed to think about the position. Obviously there’s no one student opinion on anything and it’s not my job to, like, opinion-poll and send around like monster surveys before you know expressing my opinion at a board meeting. It’s instead my job to take a temperature of the University community in a way that I can… for my experience on the Board and then to sort of like present my reflections as honestly as I can and try to be fair in accurately reflecting the diversity of opinion on different things, as they come up.
S: Do you think the traditions of student self-governance here at the University relate to your job as the student member of the Board of Visitors?
H: Certainly. I think the fact that there’s a student position on the Board is in keeping with the tradition of student self-governance. The concept doesn’t apply in the same way. The Board of Visitors in a lot of ways... its constituents are not students, its constituents are members of the University community and the Commonwealth in general. I mean the University of Virginia is a public institution, so who it’s responsible to is broader than just students, but just having the opportunity to sit in on these confidential executive Board sessions as a student I think is going along with that tradition at the same time.
S: Do you think UVA’s nature as a public university influences how it carries out its job of being a University? Makes it different than a private University would be?
H: Yes. I mean, especially talking about the Board, like how its Board members are appointed obviously is very different because it’s not a public university in that the governor appoints them. We have certain fiscal constraints obviously because we’re a public university. We don’t get much of our money from the state. But I think that how we think about fundraising and what our objectives are, and what our mission is as a university, I think we have to constantly weigh against our priorities or weigh against our duties to the Commonwealth. We have a service that we provide to the Commonwealth. I think that’s very different from a university that’s private and can maybe choose to narrow in on one area of specialty at exclusion of others, I don’t think we have the same luxury in how we think about what we offer to students.
S: We have to offer everything.
H: Yeah, I mean we don’t offer everything. We have to make cuts in some things, but yeah, I think we have a broader mission than most because we’re public.
S: What do you think about the process by which the other members of the Board of Visitors are selected?
H: The fact that they’re appointed by the governor?
H: I mean, it’s obviously an important topic to discuss further. I can see how one would find problems with that. You know, the fact that we don't receive so much money from the state and yet our governing board is all appointed by the governor, I can see how that would cause some resentment or even confusion among members of the University community, thinking that it should be someone from, you know, the UVA family, but at the same time, most members of the Board did go to UVA. They’re also all alumni. And those that I’ve like gotten to know and worked with you know on the Board now or who were on the Board in the past that I’ve met informally, I’ve witnessed nothing but an undying affection for the University and a real devotion to pursuing its best interests as they understand them, so on the one hand yes, I think maybe there’s a problem with the process, maybe we should talk about the process more, but at the same time I wouldn't say that it’s led to poor quality members. It’s a pretty impressive group of people that really care about the school. I mean, Robertson library – right? – two floors up from here, it’s a gift from the Robertsons, Tim Robertson being a current board member. You know Nau Hall, that’s you know a gift from John Nau. And that’s not to say that the Board members should just be wealthy contributors to the school. There’s something so much more that you need in a good Board member, but it’s just indicative of the fact that they’re really devoted to this place and to its success.
S: Going to the events of this summer, when did you first learn of the philosophical differences I guess between President Sullivan and the Board of Visitors?
H: That’s kind of a tricky question because understanding the philosophical differences was kind of a lengthy enterprise. So when I found out the news I guess that President Sullivan was being asked to step down. Um, I think, I’m trying to remember, I think I found out that Friday –
S: Before the email was sent out that Sunday?
H: Mhm. I found out in advance. I was told I think, you know, just my term had started that month –
S: When did your term start?
H: It started in June. The last Board meeting where Jonathan Overdevest who’s the former student member served was in May, the end of May, and I went to that meeting and shadowed so I guess by default my term started right after that meeting, so basically in June, but my picture and my information hadn’t been uploaded on the website. I don’t think anyone really thought about me as the student member because there hadn’t been a Board meeting yet, but I was just called sort out of courtesy, to keep me informed of the decision, rather than to consult me on its wisdom. I wasn’t part of any of the deliberations in advance.
S: Do you think you should have been a part of those deliberations?
H: Not really.
S: Or should the past member maybe?
H: I think part of the problem was that so many people were caught off-guard and it was surprising to me talking to John about it that he didn’t see it coming. I mean, he’d been on the Board, he’d been on all the Board meetings, all the private meetings for the past year, and he didn’t see this in the horizon, and so yeah I guess then maybe he should have been part of this process and this decision. But for me, coming in, they’re always going to be conversations that you’re not part of from the previous year and maybe it’s the Board’s obligation to catch me up now or to catch me up in June, but to think that I would have known all of those things having not been on the Board is… I don’t know I think that’s an unduly task. But, I don’t know if that answers your question.
S: No, it does. Thank you.
H: I’m just kind of rambling.
S: No, it’s great. What was your first reaction when you got that call on Friday?
H: I was really just kind of surprised, I mean it was something I didn’t seen coming. And I think my first thought really was I had been at that May meeting and did not think, you know, wasn’t thinking about this at all. I remember thinking back when I got this call, like “man I must be so naïve,” like I must have been so naïve at that Board meeting to not perceive these like underlying tensions. You know, people are always tense at Board meetings, certainly. There’s always frustrations about the fiscal situation and long term planning. It wasn’t like a cheery, merry-go-happy meeting. But at the same time, to think that like: “Ah like here I am, this naïve student and this just goes over my head, this news.” So that was probably my first reaction honestly. And then my second reaction was: there must be something else, people are gonna think there is something else. This is very seemingly scandalous, that the president of two years is being asked to resign. This is gonna really take a lot of people by surprise. But I think even in thinking that I was sort of doubting my own reaction because this is the Board of the University and I really do still have a lot of respect for the Board members that I know, and think that they at the time really did do what they thought was right for the school, and I still think that, despite the fact that I don’t agree with how they did it, so, I don’t know. I think there was also part of me that was just doubting my own reaction, thinking, like well “maybe I just don’t know about this…”
S: But a lot of people didn’t know, you were not…
H: Right, but know how to evaluate the decision is what I mean. Because as a student you’re not really in a position to evaluate a president’s performance one way or the other. I mean, what metric do you have to do that? I mean you can say: “oh I like the president” or “I don’t like them” or “I see them at events” and that’s certainly a valid and important contribution to make but you don’t really know how effective a president is at leading you know the hospital or fundraising or those things unless you make a point to know those. And I, you know, in finding out this news despite the fact that I knew a lot about the Board, or tried to know a lot about the Board, I was just sort of uncertain to what extent I, as a student at that time, could pass judgment one way or the other about whether this is right.
S: Had you met President Sullivan?
H: Mhmm. Yeah. I mean I actually met President Sullivan my second year, when she first came, she spoke at Jefferson Society, and she and I like went out to dinner with her husband Professor Laycock and some other students, and I had met her at the May Board meeting, and we had scheduled to have lunch later in the summer. So, yeah definitely, she and I knew who each other were.
S: And did you like her?
H: Yeah, I mean I don’t really, I didn’t really know her. I didn’t really know anyone on the Board.
S: Okay, right.
H: And so like, everyone’s obviously been very kind to me. I’m just a happy, nice, blonde student so everything was cordial. I didn’t really know anyone. But, she, yeah. I definitely had no reason to think that she wasn’t doing a good job.
S: Right. You talked about your initial reactions to the news. Did your reactions change over time, when you came back to Grounds for a Board meeting?
H: Yeah. So those were probably like the worst two weeks of my life. It almost like makes more sense for me to like take you through that two weeks.
S: Please do!
H: Because it’s frustrating to me now when people try to propose this linear progression of events because there just wasn’t one. It was the most chaotic time. And the situation took a new face by day by day. On Sunday, when everyone else found out, everyone was just confused. Nobody knew what was happening, they didn’t know why they didn't know, they were looking for more, there must be a there there, right, and so they just had to figure out what it was. The President… the Board… so people were just digging. And I think [on] Monday, people were still kind of confused, and so I felt an obligation at that point in time to issue some kind of explanation to students or to explain the reasoning of the Board as the student member. And so I asked the Rector to call me on the phone, and we had this two-hour conversation where she essentially tried to talk me through the events and give me some explanations for sort of how the Board was thinking about strategy and some other parts of the decision-making process. And so I, in my sort of naïveté, endeavored to lay out this explanation to the extent that I could as a student member, not to endorse it one way or the other but to essentially give more information.
H: That would hopefully settle this storm on the student end.
S: So you tried to take the two-hour that you had and like put it out to the student body?
H: Yeah and I also, I also had some friends on the Cav Daily that really wanted me to do an interview with them and really wanted more information so I thought like “okay I’m the student member, this is a really confusing time, like I have an obligation to do this, so I’m going to do an interview and give you what information I have.” But, frustratingly, that interview ended up coming out as if were an endorsement. I think the headline was like: “Hillary Hurd says Board of Visitors Decision is wise” or something like that, which I don’t, I mean, it was a two-hour interview too, and so I don’t really remember like what quips that had come from or had I necessarily said that. I think instead I was trying to emphasize more the fact that there were challenges that lay ahead and it was wise to respond to them, but not necessarily to endorse the President’s resignation as an appropriate response, but rather to outline how the Board was thinking about this. That was sort of mistake number one, maybe I would say, on my end, of just something like I shouldn't be so naïve so to presume that how I understand a message is going to be communicated in the way that I intend, and I think that caused a lot of fury on a lot of the part of alumni and students and administrators and everyone, that I would say “this is a wise decision,” and so –
S: But you hadn’t meant to say that?
H: I mean I hadn’t meant it to be an endorsement, right? But I think the confusing kind of like, semantics of it for me was that I think that the challenges the Board identified were wise challenges to meet and this idea of having a strategy for the school. All the points that the Rector made to me, I still do agree with, but I think they’re things that President Sullivan would also agree and that the University community would also agree with, and things that we need to meet as a community head-on. It was just sort of transmitted in the wrong way, my identifying those things I think as being wise things to immediately confront. And so that was the beginning of what was a week of hell, I would say. Like if I’m just being honest, I can’t even convey how absurd that week was. I was working in DC, twelve hours a day at an internship, working as a journalist. So that’s the ironic part, number one, I’m working as a journalist. But then this thing is being circulated through the press, and I’m not doing any interviews with anyone, because it’s not my place, I’m not the spokesperson for the Board, and I can’t give them any information so there’s no point in my just being interviewed to, like, say nothing. So the press is obviously just using the Cavalier Daily as its quotes. So it’ll be like, article critiquing the Board: “But Hillary says it’s a wise decision.” That's the argument, that’s the line that's getting circulated around. So I’m walking to work everyday and I’ll see The New York Times and The Post and it’s my quotes in them. And I’m just trying to do my job as an intern, and this is not really my place to be involved in this, like I didn’t make this decision and so it was just a week of frustrated emails from alumni. Not necessarily about me, that was a very minor part, but just in answering how it affected me personally or what my personal involvement was, that was what immediately hit me first. Sort of like motivated me to leave DC and come immediately to Charlottesville to essentially assess the situation for myself. And what was I think the most frustrating part about it was not… It wasn't so much that I was angry that I thought this was the right decision and everyone was criticizing me or that I thought this was a bad decision and I got my words wrong, it was more the fact that, I didn’t really know. I was still making sense of it, like everybody else, and that’s probably the most honest thing I can say. The Board, I have a lot of respect for the Board members and I was sympathetic to a lot of the things that they were saying but at the same time I’m not in the position to endorse that, I don’t have the qualifications or I didn’t have the experience on the Board at that point to think that was a good idea. I could see faults in the process, but the faults in the process that I perceived kind of came out later, and so I was really just trying to piece together different parts of a puzzle that I needed more time to piece together, and so that was really the most frustrating part about it. I was just frustrated how immediate the anger and the frustration was, and a lot of alumni and faculty took to me in that, in thinking that this was my opinion, that I had somehow orchestrated this. I was a little like put off by that and didn’t understand why I wasn’t being, I don’t know, well that’s getting too… anyway. So I came back to Charlottesville at the end of that week and met with faculty and administrators and Helen and some other people, and tried to essentially like put together a narrative in my own mind of what had happened. And it was just a very, very different thing being in Charlottesville than being in DC. In DC I was obviously thinking about this a lot. I was getting hundreds of emails every single day but, being in Charlottesville, it just felt different. It felt like a war zone. You literally couldn’t walk anywhere without someone looking exhausted and looking just like this situation had completely thrown them out, and I’d just never seen anything like it. I know it sounds very dramatic to say that but I think that most people that are even quite mild-tempered, that have worked here a long time, would say the exact same thing. That’s what it felt like. And so, that I was guess the first week, and the Rector really wanted me to talk to students and explain things and so I asked her to have a meeting with some student leaders that I knew were gonna be in town. So I came into town that night, called some people that I knew were gonna be in town, and so she had like a three hour thing. So that was part of that whole thing as well. I’m trying to think, what else happened. And then I guess the Board meeting was that following Tuesday, or Monday.
S: Wasn't it a Tuesday night one, that went really late?
H: Was it Tuesday night? Yeah. So I went back to work, and then I had, came down for the next Tuesday meeting. But, funny thing, I was working at Foreign Policy over the summer, which is obviously a foreign policy magazine, and a lot of our defense bloggers, like Daniel Drezner and others, were blogging about this story, and I was having to, as an intern, lay out articles, about UVA –
S: About yourself?
H: Yeah. [Laughs.] I was just like, oh my God, I just want to do my internship, I want to write about Russia, like that’s my job, and I’m like literally laying out pictures of the Rotunda like burning down. This is so, this is a nightmare. So, anyway, yeah then I guess then I came back for the twelve-hour meeting and ended up driving back um that next morning like four in the morning in a cab and went to work again. So, it was crazy.
S: Can you tell us a little bit about that twelve-hour meeting?
H: It was long, it was really cold. I think I had forty-five mints that I split with John Nau, because there was no food, well, there were cheese cubes. I shouldn’t lie. But, yeah, I mean, it was very intense, a very emotional time. I obviously can’t talk about the content of that meeting, because it’s confidential, but I just think that everybody was very hurt by it, hurt by their own decision and hurt by the community’s distrust of them, and hurt by the situation in general. It was just very sad. I think it was just sort of trying to figure out if we really thought this was right, this decision, like do we – how do we desegregate one, why it was done, like the question of why, what our reasons were, from how it was done, which was obviously so flawed. Can we keep those two questions separate? And is the first question, like, did we even think about that enough? I think that was really a large part of the conversation, trying to move back and forth between those two things.
S: Do you think they can keep the two questions separate?
S: Do you think they should be separate issues, I guess?
H: At first I thought they should be separate. You know if the Board is going to make a decision, then it should think about the decision, and it should make the decision, and it should not back down, like if they think it’s the right decision, then, great, that’s the right decision, move forward with it! You’ve thought about it, you’re the Board, you know what you’re doing, so good. But, to a large extent, too, I mean this process was obviously so flawed that it’s hard to think, given what we know about the process that the decision, that the initial reasons why are even thought through enough. So, in thinking about the interaction of those two questions, ultimately the process ended up undermining the degree to which you know deliberation could even take place on the first point. So I don’t know if they can be kept fully separate.
S: Did, you mentioned getting hundreds of emails from UVA every day while you were in DC? Did you get emails from students, alumni, what were the nature…?
H: Yeah. I got emails from every single person in the world. I had this one person; this was the best email I ever got in my entire life. It was like “Dear Hillary, please call me. I’m in Mexico. I need to talk to you.” And I was like “Okay, I’ll call you.” This is kind of intriguing. And so I don’t know why, most emails I couldn’t respond to, I just had so many, and I was also at my internship trying to write stuff and do my work. And so I called this woman in Mexico, and she was like “Hillary, I just wanted you to know: there’s a Board meeting on Tuesday, you should go.” And I was like “I know, I’m going, I’m aware. I’m getting the emails! Thank you… so much.” But no, I should say too, at the end of the day, I shouldn’t paint these emails as though they were all negative and critical. Like, two-thirds of them, I’d say, were incredibly supportive, and I feel in so many ways so much closer to UVA because of it. There were so many people that reached out to me that were abroad and were following things and wanted to say that they were supporting me. Even parents of former student members of the Board, that kind of knew what the position was, knew my situation, wanted to express their support regardless of how it worked out. I appreciated most those that would say to me: “I know that you’re in a difficult situation and you know things that not everyone else knows and I want you to just do what you think is right in the situation and know that we have confidence in you, even though this is really difficult.” That was probably the best message to send. Because when people would email me one way or the other, saying, “we think this,” or “we think this” when they didn’t really have information, that wasn’t really a source of comfort. Because I myself was trying to put things together, and so when someone would come to me with a dogmatic viewpoint, having not really understood what happened, then it just wasn't so much help, and it just frustrated me further. So, there were just a lot of different strains in the emails I received. But it was interesting.
S: Was your family a source of support for you? Your UVA family?
H: You mean, my parents?
H: It’s funny because my parents have always been very hands-off. And I’m very close to both of them, but they just have a very hands-off parenting style. I don’t think they even knew I was on the Board until I told them a couple weeks afterwards that I got it. They just kind of let me do what I’m going to do, and I sort of report to them, you know, eventually, in time. And I think, with this, like they just didn’t know what to think. You know, my poor mother called me on the phone, and she’s like “we’re getting all these letters,” like, “I don’t know,” like, “what’s going on?” you know like “this is so upsetting.” But, my parents are very calm. My mom is not calm. She’s, you know, very loving. But my dad is very calm, so it’s just nice to speak to someone on the phone who has a very temperate view, and he was very, you know, convicted about things he cares about, and my dad obviously had a lot of problems with how this whole thing transpired and was very critical about a lot of stages of it, but he, at the same time, at least for me, was very supportive, and allowed me to think about this on my own. What was so different about this position and this situation was that there were a lot of things that I had to personally deal with. Like, information I had that I could not share. It was just a very isolating; it’s a very isolating position. And so, even in thinking about where I stood, it’s something that I can’t bounce ideas off people in the way that I could in another position. I was really just, just had to think about it in my own head or talk about it in some way that didn’t reveal what I was actually talking about, so I think that was probably the most frustrating part about it.
S: That’s tricky. I remember your remarks at I think the June 23 Board of Visitors meeting, that you were talking about, you were saying what the students felt, that they felt that something was broken, and they were sending you all those emails because they care… can you elaborate more on that?
H: I think that was what also in my first week most surprised, comforted, confused, and frustrated me, all those things at once, which is how many students were following this and wanted to know more and had read every single article that had come out and didn’t really know what to make of it. I actually really appreciated students that were actively engaged with the story but yet still indecisive about the outcome. I think I just really admired that because that’s how I felt. Even knowing all this information, I still felt very undecided, and still felt very confused about how to put all the different pieces together, and so, I think that’s a large part of what the protest was, there were a lot of clear mistakes that were made, and a lot of clear faults committed by the Board, but at the same time, there were still just a lot of other things in this story that had yet to be sort of ironed out and some things that had come out in the press that had obfuscated the real issues or mis-framed them and so I just appreciated students that acknowledged all those contradictory things but yet still wanted some resolve to this terrible situation and that’s what I tried to convey.
S: Did you feel like students cared about the events, even while they were at home, or abroad, doing their own thing, not here in Charlottesville?
H: Yeah, I think there’s certainly a critical mass that cared. To be honest I think, you know, with anything having to do with the administration at UVA, there are certain students that are just very plugged in, they care a lot, and they you know they organize rallies, they know how much the tuition is increasing you know just as the Board announces it, and there are other students that are good students and they care about UVA, but they’re not necessarily engaged with the day-to-day like, I don’t know, like top-down decision making process.
H: I don’t know, they, and I think that was probably true to some extent here. Like I’m sure there were plenty of students that were like, “uch, this issue,” like “go away,” like, “I’m in China, I want to be in China, and you know, enjoy myself, and not care about this thing,” so I think that’s fine, they don’t really have to. But there were just a lot of students though that I think really were engaged and that especially if they came back to Charlottesville for the rally. Those students weren’t all here in the summer and a lot of them commuted back so, something that would never ever happen anywhere else. It definitely shows how distinctive UVA is as a place.
S: Were you here for the rally?
H: Which one?
S: Any of them.
H: Well, one of them, was you know, before the Board meeting.
H: So I was obviously here for that. I did not come down for Rally for Honor though.
S: What was the atmosphere like at the rally that you were at?
H: Well I wasn’t among the people in the crowd so much, ‘cause the Board meeting coincided with it, but what intrigued me most about it, was the variety of personalities involved, or the variety of um, I don’t want to say like “positions,” but like the fact that Casteen was there, you know, the fact that Elzinga was there, the fact that students were there, community members were there, I mean this was not like a big rally organized by one niche. This was a much more cross-sectional kind of grouping of people, so that was I think what most struck me, and it was also just crazy to look at. I mean, we just took up the whole Lawn. So I’m standing in the Rotunda, and looking down at thousands of people and you know thinking “what in the world, what is this situation that I’m in right now, this is crazy!”
S: Do you really think the response was unique to UVA?
H: Well the situation was unique to UVA in some ways. Maybe it wasn’t. Presidents have been fired before with little explanation after two years, so maybe I should take that back. But, I don’t think there’s anything like it that’s ever happened. I think that's why it was such a national story. Just ‘cause, I mean on the one hand, the story was “A Board fires a president with little explanation, problematic line of reasoning after two years,” story. But then, the story was “Community, like, tackles Board, community, like revolts.” That was the real story, you know, after the story, so it was a reaction over a reaction, in a lot of ways that made this national. It was definitely unique to UVA.
S: What do you think about the media’s role in portraying this situation?
H: Well, I’m divided. Because well, I guess I should say first, the media was crucial in this, in affecting change in affecting President Sullivan’s resignation. So obviously a huge role. And should I, I’m like definitely… to reporters that I know at the CavDaily, and the Post, etcetera. At the same time, I feel like there were a lot of different kinds of, you know, there’s a lot of different kind of reporting on this, there were some, that were lengthier articles that were more thoughtful, that reflected more of the actual situation. Andrew Rice’s piece in The New York Times was one of those I think. There were some articles by Jenna Johnson that were like that too. And I talked to her multiple times and I like her a lot. But at the same time there were also a number of other pieces that I thought really obfuscated what the real issues were and essentially just added fuel to the flames in a way that just wasn't productive. You know, there was obviously a lot of FOIA-ed emails that came out, and some things, that I didn't know about, and I’m glad I knew about, like having them be FOIA-ed, but there were other times when, like having been involved in the situation, and knowing the context I felt like some snippets of quotes ultimately obfuscated what the real conversation was about and mis-framed the issue. I mean, this really was about role defining. I mean that was what the summer was about I think in a lot of ways, like: what is the role of the Board vies a vie the President’s office? Boom.
S: You think that was the real issue?
H: That was the issue. That’s what I think it was. I mean obviously along with that are questions of strategy and long-term planning. And all those things are relevant, but I think they stem ultimately from that question. But then these issues, what kind of came out though about the personality disputes, and you know “does Helen Dragas like President Sullivan’s clothing?”, I mean those kind of things just frustrated me so much, because they weren’t relevant, they weren’t helpful. They detracted from the real story and I, I just felt like you know, if a reporter’s interest is ultimately portraying like the truth of things and giving, you know, helping the public understand what happened, then all these details, however sensational, and maybe, in some cases, even true, they might be, they don’t, they don’t put together a clear picture in the way that we might like, or the way that I might want to you know, have portrayed.
S: If you were going to frame the situation this summer in like a beginning-middle-end format, do you think we’re at the “end” yet?
H: It’s interesting the way you phrase that. We’re at – I think the end was in June, when President Sullivan was reinstated. Ask the president to respond, community responds, president reinstated, that’s the beginning-middle-end. But in terms of “Is this over?” which I guess is still the end, it’s just… I’m playing with the semantics of this question, I don’t know. I mean it’s definitely not over, there’s definitely a lot of questions about the role of the Board that I think have come to the surface and are all the more present now, and I think that they were problems before. I don’t think this is a new issue, like the turnover of the Board, the fact that we have Board meetings, like the cumbersome amount of work Board members are responsible for, all these things like affect how decisions get made, how they get communicated, and I think that was a problem before. I think now it just has to be more forcefully worked out, I think that there’s still a lot of tension. I don’t think it’s a sparkly position, you know, being a Board member. I think, it feels like more of a chore, I’m sure, some of the Board members now despite like how fun, how endearing they are, how much they’ve done for the school, even if they’re new, I think it’s still kind of a chore. I think it’s just, there’s just a lot of, there’s definitely a stigma attached to the name BOV. It’s going to be hard to –
S: A stigma from this summer?
H: Certainly. I think that it will ultimately fade away and that everything will, things will keep going as they have. It’s just a question of in the interim, you know, what will get done? That’s, I’m not sure, how that will continue. There are just a lot of things going on.
S: Do you think there should be a faculty member of the Board of Visitors?
H: Do I think there should be a faculty member? Ah, no. Not really. I think that there shouldn’t be.
S: Why not?
H: I shouldn't even say it that way. I’ve actually thought a lot about it, I think it’s a good discussion to have. I think faculty members [should be] involved in the committees of the Board. There should be constant working groups between Board members and faculty to understand the issues at stake and how they impact different departments, how they impact the school, but I think there’s a conflict of interests in having a member of the governing body being an employee of a university, being paid by the University. And so, a retired faculty member? That’d be a great idea. Sure. Maybe we should even start that now. But, I think it’s more, for me, there’s an issue of conflict of interest, and they’re being paid…
H: And you’re discussing issues of tenure, and hiring, I think there’s just a problem there.
S: Definitely. What do you think we as a university community can learn from the events of the summer?
H: Hmmm. What not to do, how not to fire a president? No. That was Andrew Rice’s article title, just quoting him. There’s a lot that I’m learning. Well I think one: in thinking about students, I think everybody should be really proud of their school, and I think they should be really proud of their president. I think this summer was very hard on everyone, but I think at the end of the day, there’s a lot we can do with this burning platform that exists under us right now. We should be excited about that opportunity and ready to forge forward. In thinking about what leadership lessons you could take away from this summer, the most important thing I’ve taken away is the importance of concerted deliberation before decision-making. I don’t doubt, like I said, that the Board members had the best intentions at heart, or that they thought about it at length, but the fact that there wasn’t an official Board meeting called before this decision was ultimately given to President Sullivan, I think that was probably the biggest error committed, and so, just thinking about having concerted deliberation. That concept applies not only to having a Board meeting before you fire a president, but also to how do we think about the Board meetings in general, like having you know more Board meetings, or having Board meetings that involve faculty, like more constant working groups, I think would be a more profitable change for our school than having just four meetings a year that are two days of twelve hour meetings that are ultimately just very arduous and exhausting. So, just thinking about how we structure those encounters, I think would be a good change. I also think, for me, it’s changed a lot about how I think about journalism, this summer. On the one hand, because I was working as a journalist, ironically, like FP is owned by The Washington Post so I was doing stories, and reporting on stuff, so ironic piece number one. And two, then I was being reported on, and seeing my quotes taken out of context and it was certainly frustrating not to feel like I had control over a story that I was a part of, but, I think there’s a certain extent to which we need to be weary of immediate conclusion-making, and we need to be weary of… we just, if we can maintain a mild temper in how we put together pieces of information while still actively trying to get those pieces of information then I think we’ll ultimately like be better citizens. Without the media’s immediate attention to the story, President Sullivan would not have been reinstated. So you need a media and you need someone to watch people, to watch elected officials, we need that, but at the same time I think you also need a certain mildness about you to kind of sift through what’s true and what’s not true, or what’s helpful and what’s not helpful, and kind of make sure you have a relevant narrative that you’re coming out with that can better affect how you perceive what’s going on in the world, so I guess that’s thing number three.
S: That’s an interesting perspective, being interviewed, being in the news, and being, making the news at the same time.
H: I know! FP is owned by The Washington Post and I’m like “you guys can access my computer, like hello, like I’m using your equipment!” It was weird. Anyway.
S: Okay, well we’re going to wrap things up. Is there anything else that you – I have one last question, but before I ask that, is there anything you want to say that you haven’t had the chance to discuss yet?
H: Not really. I guess, I mean the only thing I would say is a plug for the future, for any person who might listen to this.
S: That’s the question I was going to ask! I was going to say, what advice would you give?
H: To the next student member?
S: Next student member, or incoming first years, what would you tell them about this?
H: Well what’s hard about the Board as a student is that a lot of the decisions that are made, because they relate to a long-term vision of the University, they aren’t, my immediate experience isn’t always as relevant –
S: Right, it’s not going to be impacted by the decisions they make?
H: Right, like we were talking about the medical center, and strategies for the medical center, and then like my involvement with Jeff. Soc. means but so much. Right? But at the same time, there are a lot of questions that student experience can immediately inform: questions about advising, questions about majors, questions about career services, all those things. So there are definitely areas where students’ experiences are incredibly relevant and important. So I guess I would say to any future student member, and it’s something that I still have to think about how I’m gong to act on in my coming year, is try to find ways where students can productively engage with Board members, in a way that’s informal, but yet, really productive.
S: Students in addition to the student member of the Board?
H: Yeah. I mean, I don’t represent all students, and I’ve said that to the Board a number of times. Like “do not think that I am the student, because I’m not.” Like, I, you know I’ve been involved in a lot of different things, but even so, there’s no one student opinion at UVA, and there’s no one student experience, so that means, but so much. I’m going to try to do the best I can, but know the limits of this position in general. So I would say to any future student member, like I think it’s good to try to think about ways in which students and Board members can meet and can talk about different issues. I’m hoping in the spring to organize a series of Jefferson round tables with students and Board members, like, two per table, two Board members per table with maybe eight students, and like a different theme that would ultimately, hopefully be an informal productive conversation about different things that students have experienced that might relate to some things that the Board decides on and that’s something that I hope any student future member thinks about as well, kind of keep that line of communication there, because I think there’s this sense that the Board is like, you know, this, that they meet in some like tower, and that they like have never even seen the University, and yet that they’re just planning in the dark, which is not true. They all went here, they all love this place, and they want to know students. That would probably be my advice.
S: Well, thank you.
S: Thank you again for your interview and for your time, and we’re going to wrap it up now. Alright.