Abby Mergenmeier Learning Portfolio Reflective Essay
When I signed up for this class, I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was incredibly nervous at first; would this be a controversial course, and could it affect my presence at the University? I’ve been heavily involved with the University’s student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily during my past three years here; this job requires me to speak to school officials quite frequently, and the fact that my name is attached to so many news stories means I am a representative for my school. By joining this class, I was afraid that a target would be placed on my back if school officials saw my name appear frequently in association with this course. My biggest fear is that school officials wouldn’t want to talk to me for future news stories or hold prejudice against me because I’ve been part of this class and they might think that I’m just trying to fish information out of them at every second. While these thoughts are definitely extreme-and the way this course has gone, there’s no threat of this happening to me- they were still worries I had about my future in I were to intensely study the future of the University.
Putting aside my fears and taking this course was the best decision I’ve made in a very long while, for this course ended up being my favorite course at the University thus far. From getting the chance to conduct oral histories from amazing members of the University community, to broadening my knowledge about higher education, to having the honor of being a part of this amazing group of individuals all dedicated to this project, this class surpasses all other classes I’ve ever experienced. The only downside I found (and I’m sure many of my classmates can attest to this) is that I hate listening to the sound of my own voice… which I ended up having to do for hours on end while transcribing the two interviews I conducted. Cringing at the sound of my own voice was only a menial sacrifice I had to pay for being able to take part in this grand project of taking oral histories from students similar to me. What I hadn’t consciously meant to do was choose two other members of The Cavalier Daily community to interview; I realized afterwards that I hadn’t branched out much in my interviewee choices, but I don’t think this was a bad thing at all. Greg Lewis, the Operating Manager, and Matt Cameron, the paper’s Editor in Chief, each knew the entire situation almost better than any other person could, since they had to follow the issues from the start and come to conclusions and find facts to tell the public. Writers of The Cavalier Daily had to teach the public what was going on through news articles, and there’s no better way to figure out how well you know a topic until you have to teach it to another.
In this sense, I lucked out, because I didn’t have to update or remind Matt or Greg about anything that had happened, or even new developments, because they already knew everything (and were actually my initial source on new occurrences). Matt and Greg are two of the few exceptions here at the University; most people still don’t know exactly what went on, or even anything that has happened since then. Greg expressed his thoughts about this in my interview with him: “To be honest, no one’s even mentioned it. No one has really even, even my friends, even people who are second years or third years or fourth years don’t talk about it. And, I don’t know why that is. And that’s something that’s kind of a question in my mind; something that I’m a little bit frustrated with because I feel like students should be a little bit more invested in what’s going on, and it seems like they’ve just kind of turned. Either, I don’t know if it’s intentionally or if it’s just because they’re so busy with work, or something, but there has been a blind eye turned to what’s still going on.”
Students being “too busy with work” is a common excuse that all three of us, and I’m sure many students, gave as to why the majority of students have failed to follow the events of this summer into this semester and on. Matt brought up an even better point as to why students aren’t expressing as much interest anymore: “this [Ouster and Reinstatement] is sort of tough to keep at the forefront of people’s minds because the issues now are a lot more complex, I think, than just, ‘Should the president be reinstated?’ It’s, ‘Should the state increase funding for U.Va.?’; ‘Should U.Va. adopt online classes as opposed to just the traditional model of teaching?’; ‘Should we reform the way the Board of Visitors are appointed?’” He is absolutely right; the issues that make up the broader question of what the future of higher education will look like are much larger and complex than anyone can truly discuss in a quick ten-minute conversation, or even an hour-long Board meeting. “…I think that whether it’s Virginia or California that’s experiencing the same types of cuts; or Texas, Michigan, North Carolina: everybody’s going through the same thing, and until somebody figures out a way to, I guess, finance higher education without state funds…you know I’m not sure… I think these things are just going to continue,” Matt said. We can find consolation in the fact that the University is not alone in facing this endeavor of preventing a downward spiral for the future of higher education.
My only major regret is perhaps not asking Greg and Matt during their interviews, “How would you define ‘honor?’ What does honor mean to you?” I didn’t touch on the topic of honor very heavily in my interviews of them, and I truly wish I had. From the media/journalism point of view, truth and honoring your word are keystones in being a journalist and being able to write and tell stories that the public will take seriously. I’m very glad I did ask Matt in particular how he feels about the media’s way of depicting the “Ouster and Reinstatement” (Sullivan as the “good guy” and Dragas as the “bad guy”). He agreed that, yes, the media definitely does this to create a good story and sell papers, but of course important meanings behind the content are lost when this happens: “…it oversimplifies the issue, unfortunately, because I don’t think that just treating Helen Dragas as, I guess as sort of like the demonic kind of, you know, bad guy in this whole scenario, it overlooks some of the big picture issues that kind of led to this. I also thought it was interesting that Sullivan was painted as the hero right away when prior to this there was, I mean, I don’t think she was unliked, but I never got the sense that she was a massively popular president.”
It’s interesting to see how differently the three of us saw these events. As a second year, Greg saw this with wide eyes, hungry for a good story to break into his journalistic career here at the University (and he certainly has already left a grand mark and serves as a great model for how reporting is done at The Cavalier Daily). Getting a good story wasn’t his only goal, because Greg certainly isn’t a self-interested person; what I mean to say is that he saw this as a time for big change, and something that will certainly go down in the University history books, and he realized how great an opportunity he had to be part of such a revolutionary movement. Matt seemed to view the entire event a little differently. As a fourth year, he also realized how exciting this time of change was, but he noted that this is something he will always remember about his time at the University. I found this to be almost sad, because the injustice we saw from the Board of Visitors will inherently be something he remembers. This aspect stands out in my mind almost more than the fact that we as a University community were able to stand up to “the man” and reinstate our president. Thus brings us to how I feel about the saga: I’m really unsure as of now.
Reviewing my first draft of this paper with the lovely Sarah Hainbach was great, because she made me reflect exactly on how I felt about the situation. In my first draft I focused heavily on Greg and Matt’s experiences with the saga of the summer-I didn’t talk much at all on my interview and what I thought about the future of the University. When she brought this up, I realized how silly this was because that is what this course is all about: the future of the University.
Going into Greg’s interview with me, I told him that I didn’t want to talk about higher education much because I felt I didn’t know much about it all. Looking back on it, I ended up talking about it much more than I had thought. One part of my interview that I found the most interesting is where I mention gender that our class didn’t discuss much at all: “I thought it looked bad on our reputation, our traditions, and also bad on the fact that they tried to oust the first female president. And we’re supposed to be about innovation and change and being at the top, but if we can’t allow our first female president to go about her way and, you know, be the president without any problems or issues from outside sources or influences – I think that’s just awful on the University….”
The fact that our first female president experienced this type of crisis at the very beginning of her term is just one issue that I think is problematic for our University’s future: I thought we had moved forward from a time where “the white man” was in charge, but apparently not if our female president cannot go about her duties without problems. Greg, Matt, and I all agreed that what happened this summer is not over, and that investigation still needs to continue to get to the bottom of why exactly the Board of Visitors forced Sullivan to resign, because the BOV is not being transparent about their decision-making process. But once we do find out what happened exactly, will that provide everyone with a sense of closure? Greg asked me this during m interview. I still stand by my response: “Hmm that’s hard. I guess… what would be the closure?” Greg responded to my near-rhetorical question by stating that that does seem to be the big question that no one can truly answer.
What would be most unfortunate is if we regressed back to the way things were before this ouster occurred, as if nothing ever happened. If we resort back to a system where a group of twelve people run everything and the rest of us are expected to follow would be upsetting more than anything, because it would mean that no progress was made at all. Matt expressed these concerns as well: “That would be an unfortunate outcome, and I hope that’s not where we end up. So, anyway, we’ll see; I guess maybe we’ll have answers to this in like ten years and we can do another interview then.”