“Documenting U.Va.’s History: The Ouster and Reinstatement”
By Abby Mergenmeier, 2013
MDST 3559 “Oral History of the Ouster and Reinstatement” was an experimental Media Studies course created after the two weeks of June 2012 in which President Teresa Sullivan unexpectedly resigned from her presidency for no apparent reason. Due to the plethora of media reports that came out during these two weeks, allegations that the University’s Board of Visitors were responsible for “ousting” Sullivan surfaced. Since issues of honor and transparency were at stake in this matter (two principles upon which the University is founded), the community rebelled; their activism led to Sullivan’s eventual reinstatement. By conducting oral histories, our class investigated the summer’s events and documented University community members’ opinions and experiences as these events unfolded. The following is my reflection on the “Ouster and Reinstatement,” the work of the course, and the larger social issues that this course brought to my attention and struck me the most.
On the morning of June 10th, I remember sitting on my bed in my house in Charlottesville and opening up my laptop to check my email. Typically, any generic emails from the University go straight into the trash bin, but the subject line of one particular University email that day gave me no other choice but to open it. My hand immediately flew to my mouth after reading the first few lines. Then my brows furrowed in confusion as I continued down the long email from our President of only two years. After completing the email, my mind went straight to a phrase that Bob Woodward used very frequently in his recently published book, The Obama Wars (which I had just completed reading at the time). I’d like to think the phrase summed up how the majority of the University’s global community felt: Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.
The following two weeks after that initial email were a blur of numerous local and national news headlines, Facebook statuses, phone calls and texts to friends, conversations with alumni, and rallies. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend any of the rallies because I left for vacation with my family in the Outer Banks, North Carolina the day before they were organized. I still tried to be as connected as possible with the unfolding events though by texting my friend who was in attendance that day and receiving pictures of the event. The day after, I was in a small gas station, still while on vacation with my family, and as has become a habit of mine, I walked over to inspect the papers on the newsstand. Out of the six newspapers available at this newsstand (four of those papers being national), the University made five front page, above the fold, headlines. Each had an enormous picture of the lawn and President Sullivan entering the Rotunda, with what looked to be hundreds of supporters in the background cheering her on, holding signs, taking photographs, et cetera. By the time I had returned to Charlottesville after my summer vacation trip Sullivan had been reinstated, and everything in Charlottesville seemed to become very quiet compared to how it had been during the previous weeks. This near-silence that immediately followed such a huge uproar confused me: could the emotions after this event really die this quickly? Do people still care at all about this, and what it means for our University’s future? Don’t people still have unresolved feelings and opinions about such a disturbing series of events that happened during the summer and at first very secretively? Again, my mind couldn’t help but think, “Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.”
“The audience’s longing for stories about ducks on surfboards is only one of the trends which is taking the media away from even notional attention of the world. The other is the media’s growing fascination with itself,” Ivor Goodson quotes Canadian cultural analyst Michael Ignatieff in his paper, “The Story So Far.” This statement, in a way, strangely sums up my feelings about the aftermath of the “Ouster and Reinstatement” event that occurred over the summer of 2012. Ignatieff uses the example of ducks on surfboards to argue his point that the media have begun to show “fluffy” human interest stories to keep people interested and watching; ratings and advertising are more than likely the ones to thank for this development. This idea is also the most likely reason as to why the Sullivan versus Dragas saga was hushed so quickly after it seemed to be resolved with Sullivan’s reinstatement. The general public has lost interest in the hard-hitting stories, or at least they have lost the desire to follow-up with stories. Ignatieff hit this nail on the head when he wrote that “the audience’s longing” for these kinds of stories is a reason why the media is lacking in real world news. The next, he notes, “is the media’s growing fascination with itself.” At first, I did not agree with this idea; I thought that the media were doing an adequate job of keeping the attention off themselves. But, after thinking more about it, I realized that with giving the public their nonsense stories, the media are really helping themselves; they are upping their own ratings. This is the way the world we live in works, so it seems that not much can be done to help this. But, I wonder, if the media take a completely opposite approach, would they still gain the high rankings they desire? Unfortunately, I don’t think our world, or more specifically our marketplace, allows for this because our economy is so centered upon money and efficiency that writers often sacrifice facts in order to get the story out before other competitors. Writers also tend to write stories that are highly dramatic in order to grab readers’ attentions, and to sell papers. Unless a large number of media corporations start producing similar media content that is completely opposite from the mainstream, I think it will be a long, slow process of turning our media around to producing content that actually has bite to it rather than fluff.
In “The Story So Far,” Goodson writes, “news assumes a narrative configuration with cause and effect, villain and hero, beginning, middle, and provisional end, and frequently a moral.” This pertains exactly to how the media covered the Sullivan controversy. All of the coverage seemed incredibly one-sided; very few articles told the story from Dragas’ point of view, much less sympathized for her. Simply put, the media painted the story with Sullivan being the “good guy” and Dragas being the “bad guy.” The outcome seemed to shout to the Board of Visitors, “Look what happens when you try to be sneaky-you get made out to be a fool. And everyone begins to hate you.” While this way of news writing is much more characteristic of storytelling, it’s not as informative, and doesn’t allow readers to create their own opinions (not to say that the media’s way of storytelling during this episode wasn’t entertaining; it was just laden with bias, which breaks one of the top rules of journalism). Goodson was correct when he prophesied that journalism’s social imagination is slowly shrinking. There are other ways of getting a story across than resorting to storytelling with a good-versus-bad plot and a happy ending.
And here comes our class’ role in this event. While collecting oral histories, we can get past the cliché good-versus-bad story line and add depth to an event that was so well-reported by the media in the beginning, but failed to go further into the inner workings of each participant’s mind. Goodson put it beautifully when he wrote, “Only if we deal with stories as the starting point for collaboration,… will we come to understand their meaning to see them as social constructions which allow us to locate and interrogate the social world in which they are embedded.” Goodson summarized the basic goal of this class: if we work together, we can get to the bottom of this.
The oral history project that our class has embarked upon is upon is absolutely a once in a lifetime experience. While the challenge of “documenting U.Va.’s history” is already an incredibly attractive one to me, the fact that we get to work together as a class to fulfill the goals set out in the project is probably the most appealing aspect of it all. Something on this large of a scale should not be attempted alone, because the emotional demands of the job can be disheartening at times. Being constantly turned down by interviewees does affect a person emotionally, and after being rejected several times, it’s easy to want to give the project up altogether if one is working alone. Making this a group effort gets rid of any real anxieties of giving up the project, because you don’t want to let your team down, and every person’s role in the assignment is crucial to its full completion. At the end of her second synthesizing blog posts, my fellow classmate posed the questions, “What can you bring to the table? …I am also wondering what the ideal interview partner would be? As in, what characteristics would someone else in our class need to have in order to complement your particular skill set?” In answering her question, I came to the conclusion that the ideal interview partner would be someone outgoing, friendly, and not afraid to do what it takes to “get the gold” or get the information needed from the interviewee to consider the oral history a valuable one (versus one that does not truly state the subject’s feelings). With an opportunity like this, you can’t let a small mishap hinder your means of completing your goals. My best advice to myself is to be polite, but don’t be afraid to get rowdy if the situation presents itself.
“At the very least, students need to learn how to take responsibility for their own ideas, take intellectual risks, develop a sense of respect for others different from themselves, and learn how to think critically in order to function in a wider democratic culture,” wrote Henry Giroux in his essay “Neoliberalism, Corporate Culture, and the Promise of Higher Education.” This sentence struck me harder than probably anything else we have read for this course. It summarizes the goals of this course, the means by which we are to fulfill these goals, and what we as human beings should be able to take away from this experience. Four words stand out to me more than others: responsibility, risks, respect, and culture. These words have been repeated in class many a time, which is probably the reason why each word has a profound meaning to me now. Responsibility: we need to be responsible for not only our ideas, but our actions in this course; when collecting oral histories, it’s each student’s responsibility to do their part in making this goal a success. Risks: the infamous word from the first day of class in which we all expressed our varied concerns about how the content of this class could negatively affect our standing at the University; we can’t be afraid to take risks in order to make this project worthwhile. Respect: this definition is an easy one, but that doesn’t mean the meaning is any less important than the others; we have to respect everyone we work with, and ourselves, so as to create a collaborative and supportive environment necessary to complete this project. Culture: this one goes hand-in-hand with respect; we must respect people from backgrounds different from our own, and be aware of how our own cultures influence the outcomes of our interviews. Keeping these four key points as not difficult for our class though, because everyone who signed onto this project has been absolutely committed to the job; there was no stopping us in our goal of creating a more complete picture of the events for the good of our University’s future.