A united UVA

A united UVA

The Rotunda and Lawn of the vaunted University of Virginia. Photo: Phil Roeder via Flickr.

In the wake of the recent board-forced resignation of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, twenty-five year old UVA political science graduate student Suzie McCarthy turned to Facebook hoping to rouse support for Sullivan.

She did so, and then some.

A uniter

Within days McCarthy’s page, Students, Family, & Friends United to Reinstate President Sullivan grew into thousands of supporters, prompting public rallies on the Grounds to respectfully yet unwaveringly express displeasure with the Board of Visitors’ secret actions, and support for Sullivan as a trusted and beloved leader.

Since then McCarthy has been cited in news stories and become somewhat of a local hero, tirelessly working over these last few contentious weeks to advance the concerns of the UVA community while urging civil and non-violent vigils against the BOV decision.

Today I’m recording a show with McCarthy to talk about, among other things, how social media changed the ability of women to have their voice heard on this issue and, What is our responsibility knowing that we have this powerful tool?

One of McCarthy’s greatest strengths during this very local crisis (with national resonance) was her consistent focus on calmness and civility, approaches in line with the revered honor code at the heart of the UVA community ethos.

Her approach showed a marked maturity in one so young, reminding us, as the Occupy movement often has, that our youth are eager to lead and participate in ways that inspire and elevate us all.

Though McCarthy’s immediate goal was for Sullivan’s reinstatement, her path to that goal was about unity rather than polarization.

On common Grounds

Taking a cue from her approach — which is also an important value here at Real Life — I’d like to discuss with McCarthy how, in the wake of the fracas, the UVA community can continue to work with what unifies Hoos rather than the differences that might divide them?

In this President Sullivan has already taken the lead. Graciously saying that the BOV had the best interests of UVA at heart in their initial vote, she was quoted in The Post today about the vote for her reinstatement saying that,

This is not a sign of weakness on their part, but a sign of strength and deliberation and a good example to each of us.

Seeing in depth

Sullivan’s apparent forgiveness and trust is especially important for women in leadership positions at UVA — and in the broader community with one another.

It’s all too easy to go in another direction, and miss the point entirely.

Take for example a column in no less than the Washington Post yesterday by Petula Dvorak in which she reduced our collective interest in the UVA meltdown to little more than the thrill of watching a ladies’ catfight.

Arguing that what really motivated the world to tune in was to see the “Queen Bee” phenomenon — Helen Dragas conniving to bring Terry Sullivan down — in one irresponsible column Dvorak attempted to sideline all of the other issues at play — transparent governance, the purpose of higher education, and leadership styles, among other things — into little more than metaphorical hair pulling and nail scratching.

I’m extremely disappointed that The Post chose this approach.

Yet the temptation to go down that rabbit hole, or to remain polarized into two distinct and irreconcilable camps can be irresistible if we let it.

It takes an Academical Village

Sure, it’s easy to vilify Rector Dragas. And it’s easy to deify President Sullivan. It’s always easy to polarize around a good guy and react against a perceived bad guy. But what are the feelings that are common to being human that we share? What are both Dragas and Sullivan experiencing in this story that can be understood even if not fully accepted?

And can we, as women, show the way to resolving issues, even if there’s a parting of the ways, in a manner that elevates rather than degrades us all?

We all want to be loved. We all want to be heard. We all want to feel valued. And, as they say, there’s two sides to every story. No matter what we think about the key players, each is “only human” and that, above all other issues, is what truly unites us.

Perhaps I’m naïve, but I’d like to afford Dragas the opportunity to have grown beyond her mistake in using secrecy to reach her desired ends. Perhaps she truly has grown from this debacle, which was of her own making. Of course, maybe she won’t grow — none of us can truly know her heart and mind from the outside. But if we can’t, as the human community, allow for the possibility that she will grow from this, then it’s definitely not possible, at least in terms of public perception. The sad results of that can only be division and ostracization.

I’d love to hear McCarthy’s perspective on this as a young woman leader and a key figure in capturing the UVA community sentiment during the past few weeks.

I’d also love to hear your perspective and I invite you to call in today between 2:15 pm and 3 pm to WINA at 434. 977.1070 with your questions and comments. The show will air this Saturday morning at 8am EST on WINA 1070AM radio and you can listen live on my website.

–Jennifer Till, Real Life with Jennifer Till

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