"We can serve privilege and power or we can serve justice and truth. And those of us who commit to serving justice and truth, the more we make concessions to those who serve privilege and power, the more we dilute the possibilities of justice and truth."
-- Julien Benda
I sometimes wonder the extent to which anyone who happens to have come across this blog understands some of the basic dynamics of Varlo’s situation. He’s up against not only the local powers but those of the State. We want to believe that he has some hope in federal court. But, oddly, the case is already in the hands of its third federal judge, with no real explanation of what happened to the first two judges. We could be forgiven for thinking that it’s perhaps a little fishy. We know, in any case, that the Regents have Biff’s back, which means, really, that everyone at the state level has Biff’s back. This case might as well be Varlo Davenport v. The State of Utah. In order to put a little flesh on this skeleton of an assertion, let’s take a look at Biff, his credentials, and his ascension to the presidency of DSU.
There are different kinds of people in academia. Some get into it because they love a subject, and the opportunity to spend their lives studying and teaching is more appealing than anything else. Along with their students, these are the people that universities should be all about. Ultimately, a “university” in the true sense is about the arts and sciences and providing the opportunity for a true liberal arts education. If the institution is serving other purposes, then you don’t really have a university but something else, a technical or vocational school. This idea of the university is an old one, and it is an ideal. There are plenty of places that assume university status and the “university” name without being universities in the true sense; they are vocational schools pretending to be universities. It is at these latter types of institutions that you are likely to find in abundance another type of person, the 2nd-rate careerist administrator. Careerist administrators exist at real universities as well, but they usually have serious academic credentials. 2nd-rate careerists often have degrees outside the arts and sciences and their CVs exhibit their attempt to pile up credentials that can help them advance an administrative career. Most tellingly, if they have a Ph.D., it will be something of a faux Ph.D., one obtained in the easiest possible manner, obtained not for the sake of study of a serious subject but for the sake of the credential itself. Now you might be thinking it would be astonishing if such a person could become the actual president of a university. And I would agree. And if you are thinking “do you mean to tell me this describes Biff Williams?” The sad answer is that yes, yes it does. But why does this matter?
It matters because, as I happen to know, there were several candidates for the presidency of DSU who were much, much more qualified than Biff. One individual I know of, for example, has a serious Ph.D., in a serious subject, from Harvard University and years of university experience. Biff, in contrast, has an undergraduate degree in “Lifestyle Management” (say it out loud and I swear you can almost hear the mushy sound), some sort of related Masters degree, and then a Ph.D., obtained through an online program, in “Curriculum and Instruction.” Now, I don’t mean to denigrate curriculum and instruction. It has its place in university departments of education. But, with appropriate apologies, it is not the study of any serious subject. When you find a Ph.D. of this sort, especially one obtained via an online program, that does not belong to someone teaching within an education department, it is most likely to belong to a 2nd-rate careerist administrator. And such, indeed, is our man Biff.
The question, then, is “Why Biff?” You can call me a snob, but I believe, very simply, that a university president should have real academic and intellectual credentials. Otherwise, he or she will not have a sufficient grasp of the arts and sciences and, consequently, of the meaning of the university. Rather, he or she will tend to see the university in terms of his or her own careerist ambitions. At any rate, what you have to understand is that the answer to the “Why Biff?” question has almost nothing to do with his qualifications. Many were more qualified. The answer is that he was somebody’s darling. He had the right connection, whatever it was. No one would become a university president in Utah without such a connection, without a real promoter or advocate who had the ear of the Regents, Trustees, etc.
I do not know Biff, but I can tell a lot about him from how he has handled this situation with Varlo. And what I would argue is that it’s precisely because he is a 2nd-rate careerist that it was impossible to him to admit any kind of mistake. So when it became clear that firing Varlo in the way that he did may have been a mistake and not in line with policy, he chose to try to cover it up. After all, to do otherwise might interfere with his career ambitions. This is the path he chose, again, to have Varlo charged with a crime that he himself knew Varlo was not guilty of committing. He made the decision to have the assault charge filed but has then lied repeatedly to the public about it. He’s done everything he could do to try to cover up his role in it. And this is the “president” of our “university.” I believe the community and, especially, the students need to understand who is at the helm of the institution. Earlier I said that you do not have a university if it does not put the arts and sciences, i.e., liberal education, character education, at the center of things. You surely do not have a university with someone capable of this behavior as president, someone in whom moral education so obviously failed. It’s nothing less than an ethical debacle, for the school and the community.
Nonetheless, the Board of Trustees (including Mayor Pike) and the State Board of Regents will continue to have Biff’s back. If he looks bad, then they all look bad. And God only knows what kinds of strings they can pull. They have all of the resources and influence that power always has, and nothing suggests that they won't continue to use them on Biff's behalf. They don’t care about the destruction of one man’s career. Who is Varlo to them? And there’s the irony: Varlo Davenport, a man who loves Theater and acting, who has been the teacher and mentor to countless students, a man who devoted his life to a serious art for nothing but the love of that art and joy of seeing others develop their capacities in it—this man, sacrificed for the ambitions of a 2nd-rate careerist with no moral character. It's much more than a shame.