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No Easy Job

June 21, 2012

Carl Zeithaml, the dean of the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce and the man who will become the university’s interim president on Aug. 16, knows he has a rough road ahead of him.

Accepting the interim position early Tuesday morning while he was still in London on a university trip, Zeithaml, a scholar of strategic management and the school’s dean since 1997, agreed to step into one of the most-watched leadership roles in the country. "I did not assume this role lightly," he said Wednesday at a press conference.

Over the next year -- the length of time he expects to be in the interim position -- Zeithaml will attempt to reunite a university that has been ruptured by the announcement of the resignation of Teresa Sullivan, forced by the university’s governing board last weekend. The story has captured national headlines, called into question the governance one of the country's most high-profile public universities, and raised questions about the role of boards in university governance, the expectations of university presidents, and the pace of change in higher education.

Zeithaml began the process of trying to reconcile the divided campus with his press conference. He criticized the process the board took in forcing Sullivan’s resignation, and laid out what he hoped to accomplish while in the position, including likely moving forward on the university’s efforts in online learning -- an issue that appears related to Sullivan’s departure.

But Wednesday made clear that calming words alone are not going to be enough to unite the campus. Less than two hours after Zeithaml wrapped up his statements, faculty and students gathered on the university’s main quad to renew their calls for the resignation of Helen E. Dragas, the chair of the governing board, whom reports put at the center of the effort to remove Sullivan. They also continued to call for the board to reappoint Sullivan.

“We have already made a difference and we will not back down from fighting for our principles and for the university we love,” the Faculty Senate said in a statement Wednesday. “We have work to do. Let's get to it.”

On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that sources close to the situation said Sullivan would be willing to stay on as president if Dragas resigns.

The senate is setting up a series of task forces to address issues raised in the past 12 days.

Rebuilding Trust

Zeithaml made it clear during his press conference that his chief concern in the interim role will be to rebuild the trust between community groups.

“I am very aware that there is a breakdown in trust between many people in our community and the board of visitors,” he said. “I realize that some of you don’t trust me. There probably are divisions among faculty and staff about what is the best way to proceed. I want to emphasize that the most important thing that I want to try to do is rebuild that trust.”

When asked about whether he agreed with the board’s decision to remove Sullivan, Zeithaml said he did not. “I think everybody recognizes that the process was deeply flawed,” he said.

He said he was not aware of the decision to remove Sullivan until the news broke. He said Dragas approached him last week about whether he was interested in the presidency permanently, and he said he was not. When board members approached him June 14 about taking on the interim job, he said he would do whatever he could to help the university move forward. The board contacted him again early Tuesday morning, and he accepted the job.

In response to calls for Dragas’s resignation, Zeithaml said such a decision is outside his purview. “Whether the rector resigns or not is up to the rector,” he said. “She is facing an obviously difficult situation. I am not in her shoes, and I’m happy I’m not in her shoes.” Dragas's seat on the board is up for reappointment by Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell on July 1. The governor has not said whether he will reappoint her.

Since the position of rector, or board chair, is limited to two years, Dragas's term as rector will end July 1 regardless of whether McDonnell reappoints her to the board. At that point, the position would have transferred to Mark Kington, the vice rector, but Kington resigned Tuesday. Because of Kington's departure, the board will likely elect new leadership before the new appointments are made July 1.

Zeithaml said he would like to see more interaction between board members and faculty members to dispel stereotypes among the two camps.

Going Online

In his press conference, Zeithaml addressed online learning, which seems to have been one of the major points of disagreement between Sullivan and the university’s governing board. A series of e-mails between Dragas and Kington released by the university Tuesday showed that the two were clearly concerned about moves into online instruction taken by competing universities and UVa’s lack of entry into the space.

Zeithaml, who served in an interim role in the past as the dean of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, said he sees himself not as a placeholder, but someone who has to take action in the interim role. He said he would not wait until the university appoints a permanent president before moving forward with efforts to move into online education. 

“Our competitors have made major moves,” he said. “We all have a commitment to really seriously explore how the university will get into that. This is a big, big issue that all of higher education school is dealing with.”

He said the university simply can’t wait a year before having discussions about how it will enter the space. He said UVa’s process will include broad conversations across the institution, with deans and faculty members, about exactly what the university should do in terms of online education.

 

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