Don't Call University of Virginia President Dispute a Catfight

Categorizing the tension between UVA President Teresa Sullivan and board chair Helen Dragas as a tiff is insulting.

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University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan speaks to the board after she was reinstated by the board of visitors during a meeting at the rotunda at the school Tuesday, June 26, 2012 in Charlottesville, Va. The 15-member Board of Visitors voted unanimously to reinstate Sullivan less than three weeks after ousting her in a secretive move that infuriated students and faculty, had the governor threatening to fire the entire governing board and sparked a debate about the most effective way to operate public universities in an era of tight finances. Shortly after the vote, Sullivan thanked the board members for their renewed confidence in her.

The drama and disruption at the University of Virginia appears to be on its way to healing, with the university governing board voting unanimously to reinstate popular UVA President Teresa Sullivan. The battle was over money and mission, with the members of the board (made up of businesspeople) taking Sullivan to task for not moving quickly enough on reforms—reforms Sullivan said involved making deep cuts in education.

The central figure on the board's side was its chair, Helen Dragas, who was behind the secretive effort to oust Sullivan after two years. It's a testament to the power of protest, with faculty and students alike battling to get Sullivan reinstated.

It was about money, and it was about the role of higher education in our society. So why is there a focus on the players' gender?

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Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorkak wonders in her column:

Are we so worried that Thomas Jefferson's "academic village" will be run like a fast-food chain? That the pride of the Old Dominion will turn into a drive-through degree mill that offers 25 percent off if you order online? Or really, is it just the woman-on-woman smackdown that makes us all keep tuning in?

True, women are still woefully underrepresented in positions of authority—in politics, in business and elsewhere. But is it really so compelling that the two central figures in this fight are both female? What is the presumption—that the only drama the media can understand is one in which to testosterone-filled men are duking it out like fighters in the OK Corral, or one in which the weak, beleaguered woman stands up to the boys' club trying to silence her?

The whole point of having women in power is that they can do their jobs—and even act badly in their jobs—just like the men. To reduce this serious dispute over the role of higher education into some petty female fight is insulting to all women—including Dragas. And it detracts from the real issue at hand.