Political Animal


June 16, 2012 12:10 PM The University of Virginia’s Case Study in Money, Speech and Strategic Dynamism

By Randolph Brickey

Citizen’s United altered the American political landscape in ways we’re still struggling to understand. But one immediately apparent change is the increasing presence of individual billionaires in our political system. Sheldon Adelson, in particular, made himself known through the Republican primary by financing entire political campaigns solely to air his personal grievances.

This dynamic isn’t unique to politics. Wherever popular funding and control fails, where people must rely on arbitrary private donations, they live and work at the whims of those with money. For example, Siva Vaidhyanathan provides an excellent analysis of the role big money donors played in the very public and very weird ouster of Teressa Sullivan, former President of the University of Virginia:

So as tuition peaks and federal support dries up, the only stream still flowing is philanthropy. Our addiction to philanthropy carries great costs as well as benefits to public higher education in America. We are hooked on it because we have no choice. Either we beg people for favors or our research grinds to a halt and we charge students even more. I am complicit in this. I enthusiastically help raise money for the university. And my salary is subsidized by a generous endowment from board member Tim Robertson, son of the Rev. Pat Robertson.

Some may suggest that the private purchase of the American public sphere is a good thing, that we should want to to bypass the unwashed masses with their bread and their circuses. But it’s clear that big money donors are not, as a rule, clever or wise. Indeed, Mr. Vaidhyanathan tells a story full of weird characters that sound like they were created for a Christopher Guest movie about lateral marketing. After throwing out President Sullivan, one of the ringleaders of the effort wrote this e-mail to a large, indiscreet group of people:

“Several weeks ago I was contacted by two important Virginia alums about working with [Board rector] Helen Dragas on this project, particularly from the standpoint of the search process and the strategic dynamism effort.”

Advocates of the Citizen’s United ruling argue that unregulated money in politics is about Free Speech and Freedom. But the students and faculty of UVA have just learned firsthand what it means to give a handful of super-rich big money donors free reign over the system.

Randolph Brickey is an attorney in solo practice in Northern Virginia.


  • c u n d gulag on June 16, 2012 1:25 PM:

    The "Citizens" decision was bad enough, but the lack of full disclosure of ALL donations, potentially leaves this country to the whims of foreign individuals, and foreign and multinational corporations.

    So, never mind "The Manchurian Candidate," we may well have "The BP Candidate," "The Sinopec Candidate," "The Gazprom Candidate," or "The Mitsubishi Candidate."

    And the fact that the Conservatives either refuse to see this, or think that it's fine-and-dandy, speaks volumes about how they really feel about this country.

    Party over country!

  • David on June 16, 2012 2:12 PM:

    U-Va is going to be renamed "Liberty University - North Campus"

  • c u n d gulag on June 16, 2012 2:15 PM:

    Jefferson wept.

  • pea on June 16, 2012 2:33 PM:

    The uber rich can also influence what type of economics, science research, etc is funded and thus considered "important" or "valid" by cash-strapped eager-to-please universities. Universities have long accepted private donations, but when it reaches the level of crowding out sound economic theories they disagree with or scientific research that might benefit the 99%, we're in trouble. They took over the media and now they are poised to take over higher ed.

  • jjm on June 16, 2012 3:13 PM:

    This started years and years ago. I was absolutely aghast upon entering San Francisco's new main library (this was in the 90s) and saw rooms named for corporations "the Chevron Reading Room" et al.

    If we no longer have any sense of ourselves as a collective entity held together not by force and bureaucracy but by symbolic institutions like the law, then this corporate model with its 'benevolent' despots at the head is simply the highly medieval alternative.

    Corporations are a medieval invention, and whereas capitalism at the outset was one of the things that brought that medieval structure down, it is now reverting to the corporate model -- which is not really a reversion, but a pseudo nostalgic one for the protection of the lords who rule us.

  • emjayay on June 16, 2012 4:35 PM:

    ....the strategic dynamism effort.”


  • TT on June 16, 2012 5:17 PM:

    As a U.Va. alum I'm absolutely disgusted but not really surprised. Money has always talked at the University. When I was there the son of FedEx founder Fred Smith stalked and then savagely beat another student and ended up getting suspended for only a semester by then-president John Casteen, after the student-run Judiciary Committee voted for expulsion.

  • Robert Waldmann on June 16, 2012 7:57 PM:

    "free reign" brilliant pun or typo ? The cliche is "free rein" which a horse is given when a rider releases the reins and allows the horse to do as it pleases. In contrast to reign is to royally rule. "free reign" might be a brilliant way of describing how rich people are allowed to royally rule as they please.

    Or maybe it was a typo.

  • neil b on June 16, 2012 8:25 PM:

    I was UVA Class of '77 and find this whole story rather sad and disturbing. I wish I knew more about what went on.

  • T-Rex on June 16, 2012 9:07 PM:

    It's not hard to figure out, neil b. According to the article in Slate, "Sullivan is an esteemed sociologist who specialized in class dynamics and the role of debt in society." Class dynamics? Debt? Clearly she wages "class warfare" and therefore must be a Commie.

  • Laura on June 17, 2012 10:54 AM:

    Siva Vaidhyanathan's overall analysis may be correct but he loses me when he writes "Suffice it to say that everyone—every dean, every professor, every student, and every staff member at the university—was surprised"

    Stop the BS! I polled my 40 students this past week and only one knew the name of the university's chancellor. The other 39 couldn't give a rat's a** and many expressed that position in a polite manner.

    And staff?? You really think the man/woman cleaning your office or mowing the quad gives a crap about whether the highly-paid, gushed over, university president lost her job and may have to seek another over-paid under-worked position where people will kiss her butt all day and tell her how wonderful she is? You are delusional.

    The truth is that a few people care deeply and they project their own feelings onto thousands of others despite lacking any evidence that others feels the same way.

  • maryQ on June 17, 2012 4:36 PM:

    I'm sorry, Laura, but you missed the point of this rather chilling piece.
    It does not surprise me that many students don't know or care who the president is, and I also consider it very unlikely that the custodial staff or folks in the mail room are spending too much time thinking about what just happened and what it means. But higher education professionals, at UVA and beyond, should be very concerned.

    Sullivan's resignation was a shock, and there seems to be as of yet no reasonable explanation. And the process by which she seems to have been forced out lacks any kind of transparency. And the strategic whathefrick that the MBA cabal are gleefully proclaiming has zero specificity. Which should make any thinking person worry about what they are really up to.

    I remember lying awake until about 4AM on Nov 7, 2000, scared to death that the very foundations of American institutions and governance was about to radically change. However, even though the following eight years seemed like one cluster*ck after another, over time I calmed down a bit. Yes, this is bad, but it can be fixed because people want it fixed. And I felt hopeful that Pres Obama could make some progress in fixing things. But over the last year or so, it has become increasingly clear that the people with money, who would be happy to crush Obama and the Democratic Party like a bug, and assimilate everyone member of the GOP into their feudal kingdom, do not want to fix things, and they are willing to do whatever it takes to destroy everything that makes democracy possible. Buh-bye, public education.

    And the groundwork for this was being laid, irreversibly, while we were focused on Bush's rank incompetence, his illegal wars, and worrying about what John Roberts thought about Roe V Wade.

    We are so very, very screwed.

  • tcinaz on June 17, 2012 5:20 PM:

    Thomas Jefferson of all people must be turning over in his grave.