The University of Virginia’s Case Study in Money, Speech and Strategic Dynamism

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

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