At UVA, the web enables a new kind of civic broadcast.
Public Domain, photographed by Aaron Josephson
Last week, the University of Virginia's trustees -- which it calls the Board of Visitors -- held a closed meeting. They heard a speech from the university president, Teresa Sullivan, whom they had just ignominiously fired. They elected an interim president. They departed at 2am.
This afternoon, the Board convened again. This time, though, its meeting took place under circumstances that were pretty much the opposite of closed: the event was streamed online. And 13,000 people tuned in to watch it.
Universities are embracing Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs; the University of Virginia, evidently, is rigorously innovating in the area of Massively Open Online Trustees. MOOTs, if you will.
From the viewer perspective, score another one for the web's ability to let you watch what you want to watch, to proliferate primary sources, and to cut out the journalistic middleman. The UVA story was not only a Virginia story but also a national one: It spoke both to the troubles of one particular, traditional, fairly conservative university, and also to broader concerns about corporate figures encroaching on higher education's values. The UVA furor attracted the attention of professors, students, and academic staff -- a group already agile with, and eager to handle, primary source material.
Today's broadcast, too, was the new media version of an old-media phenomenon, a kind of Internet-enabled civics. When I was a kid, the local Board of Education used to hold its meetings in the high school's TV studio, a cinder-block-walled cavern whose only redemptive feature was that it let meetings be broadcast on public-access stations and the web. Grandmas tuned in to see their granddaughters be recognized for great science lab projects. Sometimes, channel-surfing late at night, you'd see a friend's accomplishments being listed, and, whether you felt it or not, your role in the school community was affirmed.
I don't think our public access station ever got over 13,000 viewers at a single time, though, and it definitely lacked the real-time Twitter chat that accompanies the news in 2012. But today, for a few minutes, Charlottesville's scholars and residents -- and all the professors and students following the story across the country -- got that, and a rare, ephemeral broadcast community in both the old- and new-media sense sprouted and thrived. They were one audience, talking and watching, to view what to many was a triumphant moment: During the meeting's proceedings, Sullivan was reinstated as university president.