Note Audio not available.
Interview with Matthew Cameron, by Abby Mergenmeier
November 2, 2012
Abby Mergenmeier: Alright, it is November 2nd, 2012; about 12:44PM. My name is Abby Mergenmeier: A-B-B-Y M-E-R-G-E-N-M-E-I-E-R. I’m interviewing Matt Cameron today, the Editor in Chief of The Cavalier Daily. Matt, can you spell your name, please?
Matt Cameron: Yeah, so it’s M-A-T-T-H-E-W C-A-M-E-R-O-N.
Abby: Alright, thanks. I guess first, to start out today: Matt, what is your role at the University?
Matt: So I’m the Editor in Chief of The Cavalier Daily, which is the student-run newspaper at U.Va. We’re financially and editorially independent so it’s just a student publication that comes out four days a week and publishes online the rest of the time.
Abby: And you’re a fourth year this year?
Abby: What’s your major?
Matt: My major is political and social thought, which is an interdisciplinary program, and I’m working on my thesis for that right now, so I will hopefully have that done in time in the spring.
Abby: What did you do this past summer? Were you in Charlottesville, or were you working?
Matt: So my summer experience was a little funny because I had an internship lined up in D.C. that was supposed to start in late May, but the publication I was supposed to work at wound up in financial trouble and couldn’t take on interns. So, I was at home for the first few weeks of June when this event happened at U.Va. and then, after that-I guess after the resignation-I came down to Charlottesville and helped cover the event, and then ended up working at a consulting firm in my hometown for the rest of the summer after June.
Abby: So you were here for the rest of those “17 days in June,” for the most part?
Matt: I was back and forth between my hometown of Fredericksburg and Charlottesville.
Abby: How did you first hear about “the Resignation?”
Matt: I first heard about it from Greg Lewis, who is our Operations Manager. I was driving home from northern Virginia actually and he called me, and I pulled off and answered the phone and found out that the President had resigned and Greg was tweeting about it and so, that was how I found out.
Abby: So, immediately after you heard about it, you just went on home back to northern Virginia? Did you do anything right away?
Matt: Well the first thing I did was-while I was pulled off-I started calling people from The CavDaily that I knew were in Charlottesville to try to get them on the case because I knew there was going to be a press conference and I knew that there were going to be a ton of questions that needed to be asked. So I wanted to see if we could get somebody there to videotape the conference, somebody there to report on the conference, and somebody there to tweet about the conference; and so, that was the first thing I did.
Abby: And then, I guess when you got home, did you see Helen Dragas’ email, and all the other stuff? And all the news articles that were starting to pop up?
Matt: I did, yeah; once I got home I had a chance to catch up on the email statement from Dragas and the news stories that were starting to come out.
Abby: Did you feel bad that you weren’t here initially, or did you feel almost displaced since you weren’t here? Because a lot of people [were participating in] rallies going on and everything. Did you feel detached from the situation for a while?
Matt: I guess I managed to get here when all the excitement started to pick up: I was here on the Monday when the first rally took place and I spent the whole afternoon covering the whole rally and then the whole night at the Rotunda while the meeting was going on. So I guess I felt like I ended up being right in the middle of it all. And then when the subsequent rally happened-a Sunday before they reappointed President Sullivan-I was here for that too.
Abby: Now, are you happy with the outcome: the fact that they did reinstate her, and everything? Or, how do you feel about the outcome of it? What are your thoughts?
Matt: Yeah, I mean I think that reinstating her was obviously the right thing to do. You have to go through the right procedures if you want to fire somebody and they didn’t do that; they didn’t establish buy-in from the community, and that’s just common sense that you’re not going to have a good outcome if you don’t do that. There are some bigger picture issues that weren’t addressed because they’re beyond the scope of the University even. I’m still concerned about things like, the precipitous decline of state funding, all of that, and just reappointing the president just isn’t going to solve an issue of that magnitude. But, in this particular crisis, I think we got the best outcome we could hope for.
Abby: Right now there seems to be stuff going on like that over at the University of Texas. I don’t know a whole lot about that, do you though?
Matt: So I just know that the University of Texas system is being asked by the governor to produce degrees for, I think, ten thousand dollars or less. I don’t know about any pressure being put on the president there, but I guess I-I need to catch up on my higher education news.
Abby: I don’t really understand much of what’s going on with that, but do you think what happened here has to say about American higher education?
Matt: I think it’s something that is going to become more common, unfortunately: these kinds of poor decisions being made under extreme amounts of pressure. I mean, I understand the Board of Visitors is in a tough position, and the University administration is in a tough position because you have a business model, essentially, that’s not working anymore, where the traditional revenue stream-state funding-is disappearing. And then you have to figure out how to compensate for that. And I don’t think firing a university president is the answer. I don’t think any one person who is president is going to be able to solve this huge issue. I think it’s a massive political problem that has to be addressed with coordinated action among a lot of different parties. So 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.
Abby: Now, do you think that-going back to just what happened here, specifically-do you think that what happened here is over? I saw that one article said-a little while after Sullivan was reinstated-that the Board of Visitors told the President and the University community to just move on, that anyone who asks questions now about it is just kind of lingering and ‘hurting the University’ because it’s just lingering in the past. How do you feel about this: do you think we should still continue these discussions? I know that there’s been a lot of panels going on about the future of higher education, the future of the University, and this class that we’re doing this recording for; do you think that we should keep up these dialogues? Or do you almost think we should just leave it in the past?
Matt: No, I think this is such an enormous event that it needs to be studied. And I mean, we’re a university that’s founded on the idea of free inquiry and people have to be allowed to explore what went wrong, what can be improved in the future, what are the issues that caused this to happen. Was it just bad leadership on the part of the Board of Visitors? Was it due to external pressures like the decline of state funding? Was there some problem with the way the administration was doing long-term planning? You know, people need to be able to look at these issues and really examine what these problems were and how they can be improved in the future, because otherwise the same things can happen and the outcome could be worse.
Abby: I know that recently some things did change with the BOV: I know that some legislation was passed- The Cavalier Daily reported on this-where, now Sullivan is allowed to appoint one faculty member to each Board committee.
Abby: Do you think that this will make much of a difference?
Matt: So, I think, first off, that reform was approved by a Board subcommittee, and so the full Board hasn’t actually voted to adopt those amendments yet. They have a meeting coming up next week-I’m not sure if that’s the time when they’ll vote to do that or not, but I would hope that they would take the vote to do that. I’m not sure that adding a faculty member to the committees is going to provide a huge impetus for change in the way they do things, but I do think that the reforms about making sure that the whole body’s present to accept a resignation, making sure that…a majority or…four of the six on the Executive Committee have to be there to vote on any sort of personnel change. I think those are good reforms and I hope that the body passes that. So I think that that could lead to them making more well thought-out decisions in the future.
Abby: Do you agree with how the Board members are initially appointed? The governor does it now-what do you think about that process?
Matt: Mmm, yeah, I’m pretty skeptical about that process. I actually wrote something about this two summers ago, like far, far before this, and it always struck me as bizarre that basically, you’ve got this system where big political donors who-most of them don’t know anything about higher education-end up being in charge of these massive higher education institutions. R.J. Kirk, right, okay: he’s a multi-billionaire, but he’s made all his money through pharmaceuticals. The pharmaceutical industry is totally different than higher education and he probably doesn’t have really a lot of ability to translate that experience to running a public university. I think his conduct on the Board probably bears that out and so, I think that there needs to be some improvement in the way that these appointments are made. I’m not sure really what to do, but I think getting away from the system of basically handing out as political patronage would be a good place to start.
Abby: That’s a good point. Now, switching gears a little bit, since you’re on the media side of all this-tons of media coverage on it-I noticed that-and we’ve talked about this in the course I’m taking-a lot of the media would paint Sullivan as the good guy and Dragas as the bad guy. What do you think about that? Did you kind of see that in The CavDaily? Did you try to avoid that? Were you even conscious that that was what a lot of other media sources were doing?
Matt: Yeah it’s… definitely something the media does. It’s good because, I mean, the media needs story lines, that’s how you sell papers or whatever. And 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 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. There were lots of different constituencies-the Living Wage campaign, the faculty even-who weren’t very happy about the fact that either wages weren’t going up for employees or salaries weren’t going up for faculty, and I think it’s wrong to blame the administration for a lot of that because their hands were tied by how much money they had coming in from the state, but, at the same time, the media did oversimplify things and it’s just a consequence of really the way media operates in America. You have to sell papers; it’s a commercial entity and so that’s what ends up happening.
Abby: Now, you personally, did you like Sullivan beforehand? Or did your opinion of her shift throughout the “17 days”?
Matt: I’ve always been pretty sympathetic to Sullivan. I can’t really imagine doing what she’s doing, like being the president of an institution as large as U.Va. I think, when you’ve got so many competing interests that you have to satisfy, you’re going to inevitably end up with people angry at you, and so, I think prior to this she was doing a pretty good job, and I think she handled this whole situation pretty magnificently, and she continues to do a good job, I think. I mean, asking one person to solve all the issues that U.Va. faces is just silly and I think she’s doing the best she can to just be a competent leader and that’s all we can ask, really.
Abby: That’s good! How do you think this whole thing reflects on our university, specifically?
Matt: I think it’s…there are pros and cons. I mean, in the one sense, right, like the fact that we managed to achieve this basically unprecedented result of getting a president reinstated a little more than two weeks after she was forced to resign says something about the community’s solidarity here, which is pretty impressive. On the other hand though, there are still these issues of like, well if there’s this Board of Visitors running the institution that doesn’t feel they have to take into account community interests, can make decisions sort of unilaterally, why are people going to want to come work here? Or why are people going to want to come study here? And those issues are only going to play out over the term of five or ten years; and you can see as faculty retire are we going to be able to hire competent faculty to replace them, or are we struggling to do that? And, I guess there are still concerns.
Abby: Yeah that’s a good point. Do you think that students still care? Do you hear many students just outside of the [Cavalier Daily] office (because obviously you guys talk about it a lot), but-I don’t know-in other classes does it come up much? Do you talk about it in just, normal conversations? Especially at the beginning of the semester, did anyone say anything about it?
Matt: I mean at the beginning of the semester a lot of people were still talking about it, just because it happened over the summer and people wanted to catch up with their friends and see what they thought. Now it’s sort of faded into the background I think. Now most of the stuff I hear people talking about are like the presidential election, whatever news events in this like zeitgeist at the moment. And this [the “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 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?” A lot of people, they either don’t have the time or they don’t have the interest to engage these complex issues.
Abby: Alright, you’ve pretty much answered all the questions I have; is there anything else that you would like to add?
Matt: Well, I don’t know… I think that this summer was really interesting, and just from a student’s perspective it’s something that will always define my time at U.Va.; just being there at the center of this huge, huge storm. And, as I said, really, the big take-away for me was just how impressive it was that people could all come together from all different backgrounds; I mean, being at those rallies and seeing like my professors there, seeing families with their kids there, seeing students there, seeing graduate students there, all sorts of people… administrators…. It’s rare that you have such a unified response to something, and that was impressive. But, as I said, I think it’s only going to come clear whether U.Va…. strengthened from this or weakened from this, as we move forward and we see whether the Board kind of takes lessons from this, whether they’re able to come up with solutions for the big problems that U.Va. faces with community buy-in, or whether we just sort of regress back into this notion of like, ‘There is a group of a dozen or so people who make the decisions and the rest of us are expected to follow them.’ 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.
Abby: There you go, that’ll be good. Alright, well thank you very much.
Matt: Yeah, absolutely.