Documenting U.Va.’s Future: Interview Transcription
Interviewer/Transcriber: Lindsay Kijewski
Interviewee: Joan Fenton
Interview Date: November 4, 2012
Interview Location: Joan Fenton’s Residence, Charlottesville, Virginia
LK: Lindsay Kijewski
JF: Joan Fenton
LK: I’m Lindsay Kijewski, and I’m here to interview Joan Fenton. Spell your name for us?
JF: J-O-A-N, Fenton, F-E-N-T-O-N.
LK: I’m recording this oral history as part of a class at the University of Virginia, and that class is Media Studies 3559, An Oral History of the Ouster and Reinstatement: Documenting U.Va.’s Future. It’s 3:51 on November 4, 2012. Joan, thank you for agreeing to give your oral history. Would you like to describe your role and affiliation with the University of Virginia?
JF: Well, I have a very peripheral role with U.Va. I moved here in ’91, my son went to U.Va. and graduated in Media Studies, the first class of Media Studies.
JF: And actually I think it was after he left, I went on the board of U.Va. Hillel and I was the chair of that during a period when it was having financial difficulties and we came back to the point where it was financially solvent. We had a great director and I resigned as chair because I had a benign brain tumor and I felt after the surgery that I just couldn’t concentrate. I went to the Sorenson Institute for a year for their year-round political leaders program, and, seems like there was something else but I don’t know right now, not much, you know, but I’m a community member so U.Va. is always part of the community.
LK: Great, alright now, as for what happened this summer, can you tell me about the moment when you learned that President Sullivan was resigning from the university presidency? How did you hear about it?
JF: Well, I’ve been taking singing lessons at U.Va. and, though I never got my U.Va. email nor paid any attention nor ever got any email from them, somehow miraculously on a Sunday on my computer was an email from Helen Dragas saying that Teresa Sullivan had resigned. And I had seen, I had known John Casteen because, not well but his son was very good friends with my son.
JF: So I was aware of him, aware that he resigned, I remembered seeing pictures of Teresa Sullivan when she came in, thought “oh this is someone I probably would like” and that was about as far as it went. And when I got the email my immediate reaction was “what has she done? Oh my god she must have done something awful.” And nobody’s saying, which means it’s really bad.
JF: And then I went back to work.
LK: OK so then, email was the way you first found out about the information. What were your primary sources of finding out as the case unfolded? Was word of mouth a primary way?
JF: I think at first I was reading the news media, and reading what was popping up and kind of looking for explanation because it was intriguing because it’s not normal for a president to resign, certainly not two years into their term so as I read, it appeared that all the explanations were not accurate which again then led to the what are they covering up, what’s really going on.
JF: That was my immediate attitude from all of that.
LK: Great. So do you want to just, I know you’ve been really involved in this case, do you want to tell me as a starting point about your involvement in the case from when it began to when the decision was reversed and she was reinstated?
JF: Well I think what essentially happened was the more I learned, the more it seemed that she never should have been fired. I know Hunter Craig to a degree, again, it’s because he’s a community person and I’ve had interactions with him, he’s again not someone I know well. But it was hard to believe that he was the third person in this, the more I read it seemed that a very small group, nobody was quite sure who had done it but that a small group had really orchestrated this, that it wasn’t done, how do I put it? I’ve been on numerous boards. The first national board I was on, the director walked in and said, “This is how you, this is what you do as a board member, this is what you’re supposed to do, this is your responsibility, this is my responsibility.” When we’d try to do something we’d say, “Hey could we do this?” She’d go, “That’s not your job.” You know, and she just whooped us into line. And I learned how to run a board. And every board I’ve been on, I’ve ended up being the chair of. So I was chair of the Board of Architectural Review for eight years, three months into being on the board, knowing nothing about architecture, I was made the chair. I was the chair of the mediation center, I was the chair of Hillel, I started the Downtown Business Association with a couple other people in Charlottesville, and I’ve been the co-chair for twelve years, and I know how things are done. So in looking at this, it was not done correctly. Something was wrong, and it stunk. And the more I learned, and the more I saw the outcry from the community, I think it just hit a chord with me, that this was wrong. It was totally dumb, it was done, from my perspective, probably it was done in June when nobody was around. Albie taught at a medical school in West Virginia for five years. He was fired after the students all left, and they did it so that nobody would complain. So when they came back they could make up their own story. And this had that same feel: we’re going to get rid of you, no one will know, whatever, and we can pull off a coup. And in my mind it was a coup, it was a small group that led a coup. And the other thing I’ve watched on boards is that most people don’t really know what’s going on, that when you have a board and you have two or three people that want something, you generally can get whatever you want to happen if most people don’t really have an attachment one way or the other. Politically my philosophy is if you want something to happen, whether it’s city council or with some board, you get three people on your side, and the discussion goes around and somebody says “well maybe this, maybe that,” and they can all bring it back. In this case, they didn’t even bother to have a meeting. It was orchestrated by a few people, and I also felt that, um, we often feel that there’s nothing we can do about something. Right? We’re powerless, it’s so big, all the issues in the world are so big. What am I going to do about Darfur? What am I gonna do about Hurricane Katrina? What am I gonna do about this or that? This was a local issue, and I was in a position where I could do something and I felt like I could be effective. And I’m the type of person, you know, if you fall on the street and somebody else is there before me and picks you up, I’ll keep walking. But if you’re on the street and there’s nobody to help you, I will stop, I’ll make sure you’re taken care of, I’ll get you to the emergency room, I’ll stay with you for twelve hours. You know? And this felt like it was done in a manner that nobody would be here to protest. And I have the ability to do something, and it just hit me as absolutely wrong. And my family was visiting from Israel, my stepson and his three kids, my son was here, and I just said, “we’re all going.” And Friday, I said to my staff, I think the first rally was Tuesday, and I said, “If you all want to go to the rally, I will close the store.” And you have to understand I do not close the store. I work Christmas Day. I work Thanksgiving Day. I work every day. I take off Yom Kippur, and I take off Rosh Hashanah, but my store is open, but I’m in Williamsburg on Christmas Day, and I work. You know, I never close. And this was just so wrong, I was just like, “You wanna go, we’ll close the store.” So my friend Gloria Rockhold, I guess was talking to somebody from NBC 29 and told them the story, and so I got a call Saturday morning, would I be willing to talk to them for an interview. And as co-chair of the Downtown Business Association, as chair of the B.A.R., I often get interviewed by the local media. And I’ve learned, they’re trying to do their job, they’re looking for a story, I always have said, “If you need somebody to talk to, I’ll always do it.” Because they’re looking, you know, it’s their job, it’s what they’re trying to do, and I’ve also worked in radio for fifteen years. So I understand that whole thing, so I said “Yeah, fine.” So when we did the interview, I said, “Look, let me be clear: I told my staff I would do it, I don’t know that I’m doing it, I’m not really sure what they want to do, but I’ll do it.” So they picked up the story, it got picked up by Lynchburg and the Richmond papers, and then by this point everybody was reading Facebook and reading online. Monday morning I get a call from somebody in California at 9 o’clock in the morning going, “My daughter goes to UVA and I wanna thank you for closing your business.” And it like, brought tears to my eyes, and I said “OK I’m closing, I don’t care what my staff says, we’re going,” and so I had Casey, who was here from Hollins College for the summer working for me, and several other employees and we all went to that rally, and it was, you know, it was really pretty amazing. And that was the one, the first silent one, right?
JF: That was the first silent one, which I just, I had difficulty with that because, growing up in the ‘60s the thought of a silent rally was like, “Really? How do you do that?” And especially in a central place where everybody’s walking in. What are you gonna do, every time somebody walks by go “Shhh, shh, be quiet?” You know?
JF: I just, I think by the time we got there they had sort of decided it really couldn’t quite be totally silent.
JF: So that takes you that far.
LK: Yes, definitely. So tell me a little more about what you saw your role to be in the rallies, how would you characterize sort of the environments at the different rallies and which one do you think was most effective?
JF: Well the first one, I think, was just a spontaneous, people were coming not quite sure what was going on. And it was interesting, you know, there was an attempt to have a sound system, WTJU I guess was broadcasting, they tried to broadcast? Or they did broadcast but then there was no sound system so they tried to use theirs and it wasn’t adequate. And you have to understand, we’re a pushy family with technological skills of every type, so everybody in the family’s trying to help them get the power and get the sound going, and it just didn’t quite work. And the second rally, which was the one where it was definitely supposed to be a silent rally, and they were going to pick who would be the interim president, again, the lack of a sound system from the audience perspective, from being a participant and watching there, it was so frustrating. The interesting thing about that one was though, we stayed I guess until about 6:30 or 7, and by this point I was active on the Facebook page, and I looked at the page and everybody was all over trying to say what was going on, so I posted a whole thing saying this is what I experienced, I came home, they’re there, they’re staying, and so people started to say, “Do they need food?” And I said, “Yeah, they do need food. You know, it’d be great if you’d order.” And so, “Well how many people were there?” “Well I think there’s about one hundred people there.” So I think four or five people then all ordered pizza from different places, you know they all remembered the College Inn and whatever.
JF: And they ordered food. And food was delivered around 7 or 8 o’clock to the people that were still on the Lawn, and I was told nobody understood how the food got there. You know, later I was talking to people, I said, “Did you get pizza?” They said, “Yeah, all of a sudden all this pizza arrived and stuff.” I said, “Yeah, well, I guess I sort of triggered that one.”
LK: Great job.
JF: But meanwhile I had this frustration that there was no sound system. So I contacted Susie, who has the original Facebook page, and I offered to help. And she essentially asked me if I would organize the on-the-ground portion of the event. And she gave me names of people who had contacted her and volunteered. So, and I’d put together folk festivals and I know people that do sound, and I’ve worked on special events, so it was a good fit. And so of the people that got in touch with me, Susanna Nicholson, who’s an alum, offered to help, we met, we talked, we kind of coordinated; Walt Heinecke, who teaches our class, was the liaison with the school so he helped to get the electrician, the Grounds people, all of that arranged, you know, but he was the connection; this guy Jeff Belnave, somebody came up with the idea to do the virtual rally with the heads on the sticks, so Jeff volunteered to do that, and then I asked him if he wanted to do that, somebody else who was really busy wanted to, so he did that; and then Chris Peck, who Mary interviewed, contacted me, and him and his girlfriend helped put together the Unofficial Transparency Band, which, that name kept changing, first it was gonna be the Pep Band, then it was the UVA Transparency Band, and then it became the Unofficial Transparency Band, which I’m sure in his interview he explains the changes in the names and why it changed names. So, a friend of mine, Gary Green, does the sound at the Paramount, so I called Gary, he couldn’t do it, he put me in touch with Gary Kirby, who said he would do it for, I guess normally he would charge eight hundred to do it, he said he’d do it for four hundred, I said, “OK, I’ll pay for it,” I’ll do the sound. And he had no affiliation with UVA. And I guess Walt and I and some other people met with the guy from the school to arrange to have an electrician and electricity, we got a guy and an order to do that, and Jude who I’m going to interview helped find somebody to do the live stream, and he filmed the whole event, and then I convinced at the last moment my son Max to do the Twitter stuff from the rally. And so we had this woman Rosalie Morton, had been working with Susie to work with the press. And Anastasia, I’m not gonna remember her last name, and Susie had booked all the speakers. And then my friend Gloria, helped, Rockhold, and Kaye Slaughter was a former mayor, at the last minute had contacted me. So Kaye did, we had two tables, an information table and the other one was like, we had a place where people could drop off board and pens and make signs and do stuff like that, and we had a volunteer table, so if someone wanted to volunteer, because we were figuring there would be other events, and we wanted volunteers for that. And then there’s this conflict going on, because Susie’s sort of trying to appease the faculty, and the school, and we’re being the more raucous-y, kind of, we’re trying to coordinate in a way that doesn’t, you know, because I’m really just following what she wants. So the music had to be before the event, or after the event, but we were having no music during the event. And, but we set up a table for the speakers, a table for the press, made sure they had electricity, we had the live feed, and were you there at all?
LK: I wasn’t, I was out of state.
JF: OK, we had a sound system, we could have had fifteen thousand people.
JF: We had massive speakers, I mean, we didn’t know how many people were coming. It was an overkill, but it was great, because you could be all the way at Cabell Hall and hear it, and it was nice, you know, no feedback, no nothing. It was really super. And I think they had planned on it being two hours, with speakers, and then they started going slow. So somebody came up to me and said, “You know, you gotta speed them up,” so I went to Walt and said, “You need to speed them up,” because he’s the faculty so he’d go, “I’m Walt Heinecke from the Curry School. We need to speed this up a little bit.” So around 3:15, I think it was like a 2 to 4 rally and around 3:15, they started to not quite read their prepared speeches, and the speeches changed a little bit because like, you gotta move it.
JF: You gotta move it, it was gonna take forever. And I remember, I didn’t hear much of the, you know some of the speeches were great. I loved the guy from the Greek department, you know, he’s like, “I never thought I would be up here,” you know, because they talked about getting rid of Greek studies, and he’s talking. But it went real smoothly and you know, I really, I felt good about it, everybody really did a great job putting it together and the response was good and it was, you know, by this point the momentum was, you know, there was just so much momentum to get Sullivan reinstated. And it’s funny going back to the rally where they were picking the interim president, I remember, you know, I didn’t know anybody, but I remember Sullivan walking up and there’s a purple umbrella over her, and somebody said, “That must be Gwen with the umbrella.” You know, and this is Gwen with whatever, I’m not thinking right now, but you know, they just knew if somebody had a purple umbrella it had to be her, so you can tell that she was coming your way, or else you wouldn’t have seen anything.
LK: That’s awesome. So you had cited in there, your difficulty with grasping the idea of the silent rally and stuff because of your past experiences with activism, either in Charlottesville or other places, do you think that the path the rallies took to communicating with the Board of Visitors was the most effective way?
JF: I think the Rally for Honor, absolutely. I would have been more raucous, I would have had some stirring up the crowd, but I really came to respect the tone of the rally and the whole, all the quotes from Jefferson, the whole having it be local, not politicizing it so much, I think the first two with the attempts at quiet were very difficult, and it didn’t hurt, but it really, it wasn’t as effective as it could have been. There was a lot of frustration from not being able to hear anything.
LK: Sounds good. OK, so, what was your first thought when you heard the decision had been reversed and that she was reinstated? And then how did that evolve into your continued involvement in the cause to reform the Board of Visitors?
JF: Well let’s step back.
LK: OK, go right ahead, you step back.
JF: So, I knew that she was gonna be reinstated. OK? I knew that Dragas was gonna be reappointed. You can’t always believe your –unintelligible- but both of these things I knew. So the night before I pretty much knew that it was happening. You know, it’s a small community, you know things that are going on. I thought it was great, I think it was amazing to be that effective, and I knew that it would immediately put an end to about eighty percent of the activism, because for most people that was the goal. And I think if the board had come clean, and said, “This is what really happened,” you would have gotten rid of about ninety-five percent of, to ninety-eight percent of the activism, you know, or the concerns. But during those discussions and during the discussions afterwards, I think it became clear that this wasn’t just a few rogue people that didn’t like the president, that there were other issues involved that were much deeper, national issues that are philosophical issues and that it didn’t just end with her being reinstated. That was a great first step, it was an amazing thing to have happen, but the underlying issues aren’t gonna go away just because she’s there, it just means there’ll be a different approach. You know, it’s like when you have a coup and the president’s reinstated but all the army generals are still in power, and they tried to put the coup in place, you still have issues. And I forgot what the question was. Was that close?
LK: It was definitely close! It was, basically, how did, after you heard that the decision was reversed, how did that spirit of activism that you had been involved in during the seventeen day span, how did that evolve into your now still extremely strong involvement?
JF: So that really didn’t do it. What happened was Susie McCarthy shut down her Facebook page. And that’s what propelled, you know, I did the rally, and I was excited she was reinstated, and I probably would have stayed totally behind the scenes, and Susie shut down the Facebook page, and it was like, “How could you do this? You’ve just shut off seventeen thousand people, and you’ve left them no means of communication.” And it was interesting, I was reading today about the blackout in New York, and all these people that are used to texting and being in touch and whatever, all of a sudden, that’s not there. You have a change. Well this was a huge change. I had never been Facebooking before, I’d never been in touch with people this way before, and all of a sudden you’re doing this, and you’re in contact, and you’re talking, and you’re sharing ideas, and trying to find out what happened, and it was shut down. So it was like, OK, and again, this is like having a person on the street, there’s nobody doing it, OK. So my son was here, I said, “OK, set me up a Facebook. Show me what I’m supposed to do. How do I do this?” OK, you know, and I like, you know, “I have to blog?” Because I have somebody in South Carolina who’s an older alum who won’t do Facebook, so now I have to set up a blog so he can keep in touch? You know, and things like that. It evolved because…
LK: So you’d say you have this sense of duty to provide the information to the…?
JF: Yeah, I think that there is a necessity for transparency, which the University was not going to provide, so by going to those Board of Visitors meetings in August, we got them to decide they would live stream. We’ve been documenting everything and putting it into the archive, and saving it, which means that, there is a change in how that board functions. We’ve changed how they interact. You know, there are people, Goodwin came to me and said, “I don’t like this, people aren’t gonna speak freely in front of the public,” but I think it’s good. I think it’s really positive because it’s again, you know, when I was on the B.A.R. we had the public at every meeting. Downtown Business Association, anybody can come to our meetings. Yeah, there are things that you’d like to say or, you know, things that come out of your mouth maybe you shouldn’t have said, but the reality is these are public people. They’ve been asked to do a public service, they’ve agreed to do a public service, and they should be willing to be in the spotlight that way, and if they’re not, then they’re not appropriate for the board. And so, you know, I feel like at this point I’m gonna go to every Board of Visitors meeting and, stepping back, I’ve been involved with issues of protecting children who are victims of incest, or victims of abuse. And I’ve been interested in how the court system works in this country. And you probably have no idea how horrific it is. But when you’re in the juvenile domestic court, it’s closed court. There’s no public record, and the judge can do anything they want. They can break the law, they can do anything they want. They do not follow regular procedure. OK, so people who cannot testify in a criminal case can come in and have theories that are disputed, but can present them in that court, and the judge can choose to listen to them. And in the effort to protect the child, it’s a sealed record, so that what goes on in there, you know, so if your child is being molested by the father, or an uncle, or usually in these cases it’s in the family, and you have a sealed court record, you cannot go then and publicly say, “This is what happened,” because you are gonna be in contempt with court, you are going to be thrown in jail, and the judge can give the custody to the father.
LK: Oh my God.
JF: There are all sorts of horrific things that happen. So there is a group called Court Watch, that goes in and watches judges in cases that are not closed, and simply rates them. And it has made an effect on judges who are used to operating with impunity, they can do whatever they want. And I believe by having people in the courts watching, that that makes a change. Well this is the same thing. If you have people watching, and you know they’re watching, maybe stop and think before you do something stupid. And maybe you learn a little bit more. And it’s really embarrassing when you make a comment in a board meeting that’s publicly broadcast that shows you don’t know anything. So maybe you study a little bit more, ‘cause you want to learn a little bit more. So I really believe in transparency and, yeah, at this point I think that’s the role I’ve taken on, and I feel that it has affected a change, and I’m willing to do it. I’m not on a lot of boards right now, so I see this as my community service, as my public service. And, you know in ten years I’ll know more about that board than anybody else in that room.
LK: There you go. Have you found that your efforts in sharing and gathering pertinent information has gotten a strong response from the community, either the UVA community or Charlottesville community so far?
JF: I find other than Goodwin, who’s the advisor on the board, who verbalized it, you know, and a couple other people, every time I tell somebody what I’m doing, they thank me for it. So, we had an electrical problem in my store last night, the electrician comes in at 9 or 10 o’clock this morning, he said, “I’ve been reading about you in the news, it’s really great what you’re doing.” This is my electrician. You know, I’ve never met him before, my landlord hired him. During, when we go to the Board of Visitors meetings, and I’m at lunch in the cafeteria and someone just sort of mentions what I’m doing, somebody thanks me for doing this. So every person I’ve met says thank you. And I think it’s again, you know, people want to be involved, but they don’t have the time or the ability, but the other part is, when it’s your job that’s at risk, you don’t want to risk your job, it’s your livelihood. I have somebody who did a whole research project for me on governance, she won’t let me use her name. OK? I’ve given it to several people, they said “Who did this?” and I’m not at liberty to tell you. It’s a former law student and I can’t tell you. OK? That’s how she wants it, you know. So, and if you look at who’s spoken up at the University, it’s the guys with tenure. You know? You don’t see the people that are close to tenure speaking up. And part of this whole attack on public education is to prevent tenure. Because why? Because people with tenure can speak up. So it’s really silencing democracy, it’s silencing the ability to research and speak truth. And so I feel like because I’m not involved, I’m not a UVA student, I’m not a, I mean I take courses but I’m not on faculty, my livelihood does not depend on it, that I can do this where so many people can’t. And, you know being Jewish, you grow up hearing stories of the Holocaust, and you hear stories of things like that, and you say to yourself, “How could this happen? How could anybody allow this to happen?” And that’s, you know, what I grew up thinking, and I think, if you have the ability to affect a change, and other people can’t, then you need to do it. You just have to do it.
LK: Definitely, definitely. OK, so you actually just put in a great lead in when you talked about the attack on public education. Tell me your thoughts on this case in relation to the general privatization of higher education that’s been happening.
JF: Well, I think, in huge terms, I’ve heard for the last 20 or 30 years there’s an attack on public education, there’s this, there’s that. I understood the concept but not really. I heard it, I paid very little attention, I was aware of it, it’s not something I’m gonna deal with, it’s not my issue. Everything’s always everybody else’s issue, and I’m not gonna deal with it. I have a friend who teaches at a community college in San Francisco, she, I think she now has 250 students in her class, she has nobody to help her grade, right? They removed all that, there’s no money, there’s no whatever. And my knowledge and my understanding has changed as I’ve read more and as I’ve learned more. I truly believe in the value of public education and the value of liberal arts. I didn’t learn much at college but at least I learned a lot of different things which gave me the ability to find what I wanted to do. I didn’t go to college to get a job, I went to learn. I think that’s a much better approach. I think the attack on public education hurts the entire country, and the people that support it don’t understand what it’s leading to. It’s ridiculous to come out of school with fifty or a hundred thousand dollars in debt. What you’ve done is essentially enslaved people so that they have to work to pay off their debt, and you’ve changed a whole way that the country functions, that sounds good on paper if you’re trying to make money and you’re trying to do whatever, but a college education should not be a financial, it shouldn’t be done to make money or something like that. And I’m not quite sure if I’m phrasing that right. I believe in the right to high school and college, and that’s not just high school, but high school and college. OK? And that you should be able to do that, the government used to provide that for you, because they saw a huge benefit in it, all these people benefited from the GI Bill, what it does is it keeps America the strongest it can be, it makes it the best country it can be. Right now essentially what you’re doing with this attack on public education is destroying the country, and I think that the people that do this, I really don’t think that Dragas knew what she was doing when she did this, I really don’t, I don’t think she knew the philosophy behind it, the people behind it, it sounded like a good idea. And I could be wrong, I could have judged this wrong, but I really don’t think she understood that if you don’t provide quality education, then you’re essentially saying let’s make the U.S. be the second best country.
LK: OK. So as a business owner and also, of course, nobody, I think nobody knows the answer to this but what can you see doing to propose striking the correct balance between a university having to run a business and make a profit to better the university while still providing a comprehensive and competitive educational experience that doesn’t ignore the liberal arts?
JF: I’m gonna backtrack.
LK: Please do. Do whatever you want.
JF: I’m gonna go back into K through whatever.
JF: I’m gonna start at a lower level. I see the No Child Left Behind as destroying public education more than anything else. What difference does it make if you know that in 1492 Columbus discovered America or whatever if you don’t understand the theories going on behind it? Taking a test, and passing a test, but not being able to critically think is number one. Number two, I have people come and work for me that can’t do math. I’m sorry, but they can’t do math. OK? If you don’t start by having nutrition for kids, if you don’t have a safe environment, and if you don’t teach them by third grade, you’re never gonna get anywhere. OK? So I mean my running joke is my students at William and Mary couldn’t multiply by two, I had them fold a quilt in half and measure it, and then they’d give me the dimensions, and they would be wrong, and I’m just like “Really?” I have somebody I just hired who I’d like her to be able to close out the month and she can’t do the math, I just, I’m horrified on that. And I have people that cannot critically think. You know, if I give them a rule, that’s the rule. The rule’s more like, “OK, I want this to happen, but if this happens, do this.” They can’t make judgments, they can’t think.
JF: So, what was the question? Where was I going?
LK: Trying to strike a balance.
JF: OK. I think that there are people for whom different educations are suited. There are people who do not want to go to college, who have no interest and yes, going and learning how to be an auto mechanic is great, but if you’re going to be an auto mechanic you still should learn how to do the math. You should learn how to take measurements, you should learn how to think. I don’t think a college, it’s again, do we make a high school make money? Does your high school make money, or does the government support it? What is necessary? Do you decide that a college is as necessary as a highway? Is it as necessary as a bomb? What is important? So, society has to make those priorities, and it becomes much more an issue of, what do we mean by no taxes? Or low taxes? You can’t keep reducing taxes because the goal of that is to destroy public education. Right? The goal of that is that the guys with the billion dollars get to hold on to it, and hold on to that money, and increase their money, but in the end they’re not gonna make more money because you’ve destroyed the country. But oh yeah, they can go live in China, so what’s the difference to them? But I see this as a necessity the way food and water and having a highway or having electricity. If you make that a priority, then that’s what you have to tax for.
LK: So you see this as having been more of a general shift in what education should entail, and sort of, correct me if I’m wrong but like, people just generally see education as sort of a check boxes, kind of?
JF: Well I see it as a political shift that has been manipulated. And again, I see manipulation as Fox News, if you look at Rwanda, or you look at Sarajevo, or all these other countries, people got along fine until somebody came in and changed the message, and decided to preach hatred, or them and us, or this and that, but once you try to be divisive, which is, you know, part of politics these days is being divisive, so you keep saying something until it becomes truth. So the truth has become a college has to be financially stable, that’s what we’ve made it be. That’s what it has become. That didn’t used to be the truth. The truth was everybody deserves a public education, everybody deserves the right to go to school. You should be able, if you work, during the summer and you work during school, to be able to pay off your school. You shouldn’t earn, you know, when Albie was in medical school, they had something called the Public Health Service. They would pay your entire medical school, and you had to work for five years in the Public Health Service. You got a salary of like thirty thousand a year, it was a low salary, but you got a salary, but you had no debt.
JF: So you worked on an Indian reservation, you worked in West Virginia, treated all the miners there, well, the non-miners who didn’t have insurance, and you did a public service. So when I worked in West Virginia everybody I knew could go to get health care on a sliding scale. Period. That wasn’t an issue. You could go. OK? So the government decided you needed doctors, they funded it, in return they got cheap doctors to work for five years, and some of those people stayed in those communities. You set your priorities. So, I just think it’s become a wrong priority that somehow, and they keep trying to justify that, and it hasn’t worked.
JF: What it’s done is continuously, the quality of education goes down. So if it doesn’t work it’s time to say maybe we shifted too much.
LK: OK. So on that note, I guess…
JF: On that note, is that a B flat or a C sharp?
LK: I don’t know. The state, you know, UVA is technically a private, or I’m sorry, I mean a public state university.
LK: Yes, technically. So, with the state’s dwindling financial support for UVA, do you see a sort of fundamental disconnect between the amount of influence the state is having with this sort of skewed appointment of the Board of Visitors, and what you see as sort of an imbalance between the support given and the amount of influence that they still manage to hold?
JF: Yeah, I think it’s ridiculous. How can you give six or eight or…?
LK: Eight percent.
JF: Whatever number you want to use, and have total control. I think that their number of appointments should be proportional to the amount of money they give. And if they want to increase the funding, then they should have more say, but at this amount, it’s crazy.
LK: And that’s kind of, what I glean from doing a little research on you is, that’s sort of what’s at the heart of the Reform the Board of Visitors?
JF: Well I think that the goal was transparency, which I think we’ve been very successful at, and the second is to reform the appointment process. So, Susanna Nicholson, a guy by the name of Steve Cole, somebody by the name of Tom Rich who was out in California helped out with the editing some, we really looked at what other boards do. UVA’s one of the few that doesn’t have faculty representation, I think staff should have representation, whether or not they vote I don’t care. There’s an issue that’s come up, they should have two students on, first year they don’t vote, second year they do, so that you always have one student who actually can vote, and then Mark Warner had set up an appointment process where he had a commission that made recommendations, and the difference was that Warner appointed from that commission, and that’s gone downhill. So now they sort of make recommendations but the governor doesn’t have to pay attention.
JF: But I think there should be some process whereby there are recommendations by a non-partisan group, and if you don’t like them, then they make…
LK: Make another set.
JF: One of the states has it where there’s two or three groups, they present one, and if the governor doesn’t like it they can do the second, and if they don’t, the third is automatically in. And the third they don’t want at all, so they end up taking one or two. But I think there has to be a better process, I don’t think that it’s right, and also, if you think about it, every four years your board changes with this process, so you’re swinging back and forth and back and forth. It can be good, you know, if you have the same party in power for two terms, you know, succeeds if you could have them in there for eight years, but you swing it back and forth, you have no consistency of policy either, where if you really have educators and people that are knowledgeable, and again, when I’ve been on boards, we sit there and go, “OK, we really wanna have a lawyer, because we get free legal advice, and we want somebody from the bank, or an accountant, or somebody who can do our books, and we want somebody with an information, you know, knowledge of marketing so they can do some of the publicity,” and we look at who we need on our board. And that’s not the criteria. The criteria is here we need, you know, they finally added that we needed somebody with a medical background, a doctor. But it really should be, you know, we want two former deans, a former president, a blah blah blah blah blah, you know, somebody who’s well respected for their knowledge, whatever. But if you set your criteria to just have this be a totally political process, it’s ridiculous. And it’s not like one party is doing a better job than the other, it’s…
LK: Just in general.
JF: It’s not political, it’s not like, “Oh, the Republicans were bad,” or “The Democrats were bad,” the system is what’s bad. And it needs to be corrected.
LK: So, optimally how would you see the Board of Visitors members being appointed?
JF: Well, I go back to the having a non-partisan group that makes recommendations that is binding. Or, you know, maybe the governor gets to have three that don’t have to come from there, but the others do have to come from there, and then there’s criteria, as to who they should be.
JF: And traditionally, I understand, the University has been opposed to any change to how the Board is appointed. So there have been attempts in the past that have been put forth and fought by the college.
LK: Attempts to?
JF: In the legislature, there have been attempts to reform it.
LK: To reform the Board of Visitors appointments?
JF: Uh huh.
LK: And of course that goes right back to the Board of Visitors, doesn’t it?
LK: I think I’m starting to get it.
JF: Oh, good for you!
LK: Only took me so long. So, great. Let’s see, then, do you think, that what happened at The University in June, I sort of get the feeling that you do think it was generally a positive thing, that based on the efforts that have come out of it, and the advances in transparency that have come from your hard work with broadcasting the Board of Visitors meetings and just knowing that people are watching, would you agree? Or do you think it was generally negative?
JF: I think, OK, there are two parts to this. One is the reputation of the school and what it did, which is negative. OK? And it has hurt The University. That said, I think this move was gonna happen some time, so having happened the way it happened, having been done so poorly, and lacking in the skill for a coup, you know if you’re gonna have a coup do it right, I think it turned out to then be beneficial because if you look at it as something that was inevitable to happen, if you believe that there’s an attack on public education, I think it was the wrong school, I think UVA has shown its strength, its character, the fact that, you know, coming out and quoting Thomas Jefferson and saying, “Not here, honey.” You know, it’s just not happening here? I think it’s made it clear that this is not the place that’s gonna be the battleground again for this. If I were looking at it politically, strategically, it would have been better to not reappoint her, because the momentum was so huge that, if you’re looking at it politically, the best thing, if you were above this manipulating this to happen, if there was somebody doing that, and we don’t know that, the best thing you wanted to do was to resolve it, because people were getting organized. Right? And so if she had not been reinstated that seventeen thousand people would now be a hundred thousand people. Because it would have become national, it would have become bigger than itself. The reappointment, though, was great, because there was a victory. But it’s a victory in a battle, but it’s not winning a war. And so I think you have to realize that there’s always a continuous give and take in what’s going on, and the goal is to, again from my perspective, to go back to are you entitled to college. The way the system works right now, you go to college, you have so much debt, you finally pay it off, you buy your house, and then you get sick, and you have to pay all your medical bills, and you go bankrupt before you die, and your family starts all over again.
JF: So, you know, that’s my political philosophy, that maybe that’s not, we used to grow up thinking I would die in my home and be happy and have something to leave my children. Now we think, oh God, please let me have enough money to pay my medical bills before I die.
LK: Yeah. So, we have a victory, but the war’s far from over. What answers do you think the community deserves, and what questions do you think they should be asking to pressure for these answers? Because there has been a drop in activism for sure, and even someone who wasn’t here during the actual reinstatement and ousting process, like, it doesn’t take a genius to know that there has been a drop in activism. There was obviously a lot going on, it was very dynamic for a little while, and now…
JF: Well let me turn that question on you, do you feel that people still are wanting to know? Or do they not care anymore?
LK: Generally I would have to say I don’t think they care too much anymore. I mean, I think that they think it sort of stopped with the reinstatement, and that that was the fundamental issue. But it isn’t what they did, it’s how they did it, and, I think, if you pose people questions like that, saying, “Is the problem with what they did or how they did it?” I think generally they’ll say how they did it, but then you say, well that hasn’t changed so what? You know, the same people are still in power right now. So I think the community’s just, I don’t know if it’s because UVA generally the students is what people focus on, because it is a university, and I don’t know if they’ve just sort of stopped questioning, but it is a little disheartening, I think.
JF: From my perspective I think there is two parts. It’s, you need an action to react to. So the firing gave you an action, the reaction was calling for the reinstatement. It was very clear to me that nothing else was gonna happen ‘til the board met. So they met finally in August but there wasn’t much of an action. So there wasn’t much of a reaction. The board will meet again, the legislative session is the one point, if there’s a bill, where you will have a reaction. See, ‘cause there’ll be a proposed bill, there are people that don’t want Dragas reappointed, there’ll be a reaction to, that reappointment has a reaction but you had six months, seven months to react to it. What I see happening though is this dialogue started of distrust. This dialogue of, I do not trust the board, I do not trust the board, I do not trust the board. That’s the continuous thing. And then it becomes a, is there a way to change for some people? And for some people it’s like, it will never change. Right? The board in itself has made changes. So there are changes happening. So they’ve agreed to put a faculty person on every committee, that’s huge. That means that those committees are not working in a vacuum.
JF: And every non-profit always says, on every committee, you don’t have to have your board members. You can have anybody on it. And they say, you know, usually the chair of the committee’s from your board, but it’s really nice to incorporate other people. So they’ve now said we’re gonna do that. I think that George Martin is somebody who’s trying very hard to do this right, open to talking to everybody, open to involving people. Had this not happened Kington would be the Vice Rector about to be the Rector. You would not have that. So having those changes happening, there’s a part that says it’s OK to let it go. I feel like I can’t let my part go because my part is the part that says, “I’m gonna keep an eye on them.” So until someone else walks in and says, “I’m gonna keep an eye on you,” I’m gonna stay. And I think that the faculty has changed and some of them are gonna leave, and some of them are gonna stay and try to affect a change. And some of them are just gonna shut up and do their jobs and pay no attention. But something has shifted. And just because we’ve just had the power outage, there’s the same shift when you have something like that. Some people learn a lesson, some people don’t, and some people just go about their lives as if nothing ever happened. But, you know, there is a change. And I think when I was your age I really couldn’t care about affecting. I worked for McGovern, he ran for president, he lost, we all hated Nixon, we were excited when he resigned, you know? But I was not involved in this community until ’96 is probably when I first became involved in anything other than that. Everything I was ever involved with was organizations. Nothing political, nothing whatever. You know, and your priorities shift.
LK: I think one problem might be with the university setting, even though you’d think lots of people would have strong opinions and it’s sort of what you’d think would be a breeding ground for making things change, but also it’s a very transient kind of experience. Like, I mean, just knowing from my point of view, you’re only here for four years and you think that’s what happens here is only going to affect you for four years but I think what I’ve learned from taking this class the best is that what I do or don’t do here is not gonna stop when I get my diploma in May, and you need to realize that if you don’t change the system it’s going to affect you as an alum, and it’s gonna affect your kids, and people, future students who are gonna come to The University and hopefully not have the same experience that we did.
JF: You know, I grew up thinking that we had changed things. You know, I grew up in the late ‘60s and the ‘70s and we thought we had made a change. And then, I think we were all oblivious to the reaction that just came and put a wave going in the other direction. And the wave has gone too far, in that perspective, and it needs to come back. But I’m shocked that we’re discussing in a political campaign that there is legitimate rape, that when you get pregnant in the rape that it’s an act of God, I’m shocked that we’re discussing whether or not women should have birth control. I’m also shocked at other parts of this. And thinking that we fought this in the ‘70s, we won this, why are we here? But that’s just one piece of it, and there’s the other pieces of this, which is why I’m saying, I believe that, why should you not be entitled to a college education? Why should you not be allowed to learn all these things? Why should you not have arts in your school when you’re in high school? Why should you not get these things? And why should my kid because I have money have all these things and your kid because you don’t not have it? And why should this person get it and I don’t? Because somehow, and again, when I gotta hire somebody, I really like them to have some education and be able to think. I go to hire sometimes and people walk in my door and they can’t fill out an application and they can’t talk to me, they can’t look me in the eye, they can’t do whatever it is. And I’m just going, “Something’s failing here.” There is a problem.
LK: Yep. So from your vast experience with this issue, would you give any sort of advice for people who may want to become more involved in the Board of Visitors reform movement?
JF: OK if it was advice, I would say to really be aware that you can change the political process, that when you look at a presidential race, you think you can’t, when you look at Congress, you think you can’t, but there’s an expression that all politics is local. This one you can make a change, you really can. And by changing who’s appointed to that board, you can make a difference in this never happening again. But why are we doing it just for UVA? What about all the colleges in the state? And maybe if you succeed here, it spreads to all those other schools. And if you take a step back even, in your little community, who’s running for the board of education in your grade school and your high school? OK. And when you have a textbook that lies and tells you things that aren’t true because some group in Texas is making that textbook, you need to be on that board of education or elect somebody, and that person on the board of education sometimes for ten thousand dollars can win and having ten people volunteer can win, and you’re changing what that education is for all those kids where you grew up. So you can change something. And it may not be this big, it’s not the Darfur, and it’s not, I can’t change whether Obama wins tomorrow or whether Romney wins, whatever it is, or on Tuesday, but I can change a little something, and if you find the thing that can make a change, it’s an incredible feeling.
LK: Chain reaction.
LK: Yeah. Alright. Is there anything you can think of right now, or anything else we didn’t touch on that you want to talk about?
JF: No, we touched on a lot of things I didn’t expect to touch on.
LK: Oh, I hope good things.
JF: Yeah, it was good. I don’t know. I just, I think it’s a really important issue. And I think it’s so hard to not see what it really is all about, and I think probably without taking the class for a lot of people in this class it was just Sullivan was fired, we got her back. And when you learn more, and that’s part of an education, but that’s part of making any decision, that you can’t just read the headlines and read the things and say, “Oh this is what happened.” You have to doubt, and doubt, and doubt. And then you make a real educated decision.
LK: Sounds good. So we’re good?
JF: We’re good.
LK: We are good.
JF: Shut it off, and I’ll tell you more.
LK: Thank you!