As an academic, a sociologists, and a person generally interested in culture and human activity, I frequently find myself involved in conversations in which someone is arguing that there is nothing left in the modern world which holds society together. We are fractured, splintered. There is no longer a framework or ultimate authority on which we can build or sustain a shared morality. This way of thinking can be traced back at least to Nietzsche and experienced its heyday in the middle of the 20th century when post-modern and critical theorists were in vogue (Bellah et al,Rorty, Rieff). Whether you think consensus and shared values can exist or not has big implications, especially for human action. And, when I look around in the world, I see that there is still some of this left.
The story of the summer 2012 crisis at the University of Virginia might seem rather old hat by now, but it contains an important message for all of us about society and collective action. For those of you who may not be familiar with these events, let me provide a brief recap. On a Sunday morning in June of 2012, an email was issued to the entire community of the University of Virginia announcing the resignation of Teresa Sullivan, the university’s president. The email, sent out by the Board of Visitors (the governing board for the university), thanked the president for her service, indicated that an interim president would be named, informed the community that a search would begin for her successor shortly. Though the email was surprising to most, it was initially followed by a number of conciliatory emails from department chairs and program directors who seemed to accept the authority of the board to make such a change. A few days later however, the community was completely engulfed in a “crisis of leadership,” and the conflict was a common headline in national newspapers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. Through sustained complaint, appeals to the governor of Virginia, media attention, and a series of rallies (one which drew over 3,000 protesters), the Board of Visitors was eventually forced to reinstate Teresa Sullivan as the president of the University of Virginia. This was especially shocking given that the UVa community does not have a strong history of mobilization, particularly against its own governance. Why did the university and the Charlottesville community mobilize around Teresa Sullivan and against the Board of Visitors? What was the perceived conflict between these two figures? How was such mobilization and energy maintained to such a degree that it forced political action from the board and the reinstatement of the president?
I want to suggest that a key aspect of understanding these events relates to the shared understanding of the UVa community, its values, and morality. In case you are unaware, the University of Virginia was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819. Students are constantly reminded of Jefferson’s presence and his vision for the university. His words adorn most buildings on campus (even the new Aquatic and Fitness center is marked with his advice on exercise, reminding all that “…a strong body makes a strong mind.”). In various signs, publications, and conversations, you will hear him affectionately referred to as “T.J.” In essence, his presence—and all that it stands for—is constant on the UVa grounds. This heritage and pride associated with Jefferson is paired with UVa’s tradition of the honor code which dates back to 1842. Although the honor code is designed to govern academic work, it has become associated with an entire code of conduct. As one student speaker put it “Our Honor Code requires each of us to act with honesty and integrity at all times, and gives us the special responsibility to be not only accountable to ourselves but to the larger community. So when we use the terms honor, integrity, and Community of Trust, we are not using them for rhetorical flourishes to be printed in an admissions brochure. These words capture the essence of who we are and what we do, down to our very core.”
This was the cultural atmosphere into which Teresa Sullivan arrived as the new president in 2010: a community in which the specter of Thomas Jefferson was palpable and the students could claim honesty, integrity, and honor as part of their identity as UVa students. In the days that followed her resignation, it became clear that the Board had forced Sullivan’s resignation through actions that were perceived as a coup d’état between a few select board members, rather than through legitimate processes.
This transgression sparked outrage in the community. While time and time again we have seen initial protests fizzle into acceptance (think only of our country’s stifled hopes to reform gun laws after Sandy Hook), the rhetoric of honor and the image of Thomas Jefferson spurred on the UVa community and facilitated collective action. Numerous organizations from within the university mobilized against the board, students groups were formed on facebook, the student paper, the Cavalier Daily, requested information citing the Freedom of Information Act, and a series of protests were held on grounds. All this buzz led to a series of articles in national papers, political outcry, and eventually a reversal in the Board’s decision.
So what do we take away from this? I don’t want to suggest that the culture of honor and the authority of Thomas Jefferson alone are sufficient to explain what happened at UVa in 2012. (Although, in a subsequent post I will talk about another aspect of the cultural framing that helped to motive the community). However, the easily available rhetoric of honor and the commitment to that value surely helped to sustain the outcry. It motivated a vast number of students and faculty to organize themselves and to put time and energy into this protest during the summer months (a significant feat for a community that generally is dispersed in summer). We seriously have to consider if Sullivan would still be the UVa president were in not for the presence of Jefferson and the values he symbolizes within the local community. From a broader view, these events demonstrate the way in which there still exist local bundles of cultural authority and shared values. The modern world may not have sweeping symbolic universes (to borrow Peter Berger’s term) which unite entire nations or civilizations. However, claiming that such symbolic authority or significant shared values cease to exist in the modern world is a misrecognition of the modern era.