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Rebuilding Mr. Jefferson's University

June 27, 2012

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- When the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors voted unanimously to reinstate President Teresa Sullivan on Tuesday afternoon, the scene here on the university’s grounds was a significant departure from a similar meeting eight days earlier.

Back then, the faculty called for the resignation of two prominent board members, and many on the campus called for the entire board to resign. Tuesday, crowds applauded when the name of Helen E. Dragas, the rector, or chair, of the board, was called (though, online, there are still calls for Dragas's resignation).

Back then, the board met behind closed doors for about 11 hours. Tuesday the university streamed the board's 30-minute meeting live to more than 12,000 computers across the country.

Back then, the idea that both Sullivan and Dragas -- both the first women in their respective positions -- could remain the university’s leadership duo seemed unfathomable. Tuesday they strolled into the meeting together.

Tuesday’s vote to reinstate Sullivan capped off a tumultuous two weeks for the university, in which an almost surreal series of events – including the resignation of a prominent board member; the appointment of an interim president who never served; a significant outpouring of faculty, administrative, alumni, and student support; and a threat from the governor to remove the whole board – led the governing board to completely reverse what seemed like a unified decision on June 10 to remove Sullivan.

The two-week episode has brought the University of Virginia into the national spotlight, where it is likely to remain for a while. It raised major questions about the university’s efforts to tackle the challenges facing all public research universities, and it brought to light some of the university’s significant shortcomings -- real or perceived. In a question of leadership, the university’s tumult embodied questions about the composition of public governing boards, the role of faculty in decision-making, the pace of change and decision-making at universities, and the role of online education.

Perhaps there's a certain irony in the fact that the university's historic Rotunda, which was built by Thomas Jefferson and which was the setting for many of the key events of the episode, is currently undergoing a long-overdue major renovation. 

But while the message from administrators, board members, faculty, and students Tuesday was one of unity, most at the institution and in higher education recognized that the institution now faces significant questions about its governance structure, its strategy for tackling serious challenges facing higher education, and how a group of strong personalities -- who seemed to disagree on so much a week ago -- will work together.

“A serious effort is going to have to be undertaken to repair damaged relationships and restore mutual trust and confidence,” said Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education. “It’s going to require sincere effort, bending over backward to be open, honest, and candid, to trust that words are going to be received in the spirit in which they were intended."

An Unpredictable Day

Going into Tuesday, many were unsure of how the vote would play out. While the fact that the vote was called at all signaled that there was some support to reinstate Sullivan, and that proponents thought they had the necessary votes, a statement by Dragas the same day, in which she referred to the university’s “next president,” called that into question. The governor’s call for unanimity Friday also changed the voting dynamic.

W. Heywood Fralin, the board member who moved in the meeting to reinstate Sullivan, said afterward that he honestly had not known how the vote would go down.

A crowd made up mostly of faculty members and students gathered on the lawn shortly before the meeting. Members of the group carried signs calling for Sullivan’s reinstatement. While the crowd was not as large as the one that turned out on June 18, estimates put it at roughly 1,500. The group came prepared for a lengthy meeting, with chairs and coolers filled with water bottles.

 

 

Prior to the meeting, George Cohen, a law professor and chair of the Faculty Senate, spoke to the crowd and called for the reinstatement of Sullivan. “We believe that the forced resignation of President Sullivan was an error in judgment by the board,” he said. “We believe that the process leading up to and resulting in the forced resignation was flawed and, most important, inconsistent with the principles for which President Sullivan – and the university – stand.”

The fact that the board’s decision was unanimous, and the lack of actual debate at the meeting, hinted that board members had discussed the vote prior to entering the boardroom. So did the press briefing before the meeting at which U.Va. officials predicted a 30-minute session. In the meeting, Fralin asked the board members to vote their conscience.

In moving to reinstate Sullivan, Fralin said he had failed the institution by not calling for a public meeting when he learned that Dragas and Mark Kington, then the vice rector, planned to ask Sullivan to resign. “I was not clever enough at the time to confer with other members to determine if three would be willing to call a special meeting of the Board of Visitors to discuss such action,” he said. “I am confident there would have been three willing members and that if such a meeting had been called, a vigorous discussion would have ensued, and no one knows what the vote would have been.”

When the board took its vote Tuesday, the crowd outside the Rotunda erupted in applause and cheers.

Sullivan came out to make remarks to the crowd after the meeting. In her speech, she said the upcoming months will be a “special time” for the university. In her speech, she went through a list of university stakeholders, from students to donors to the university’s campus in Wise, thanking them all for the support. She called out incoming students who might be questioning their decision to attend the university and faculty members considering outside offers to reconsider: “You have an opportunity now to join with us in a moment of great unity and shared purpose in our intellectual community, and to be part of something that is truly distinctive in higher education,” she said. 

At one point the crowd actually cheered “Thank you” to the board. When Sullivan finished speaking, the administrators, board, and crowd locked arms and sang the university’s de factor alma mater, the “Good Old Song.”

A Change of Leadership

News Coverage:

The surprising news of the ouster.

Sullivan as defender of liberal arts departments.

The e-mail trail of top board members.

The role of U.Va.'s COO.

The U.Va. debate and questions about higher ed governance.

Essays:

Susan Resneck Pierce on how not to fire a president.

Johann Neem on whether "disruptive innovation" is rhetoric or reality.

Kieran Healy imagines what the U.Va. board was thinking.

Blogs:

From Gradhacker.

From Confessions of a Community College Dean.

From GlobalHigherEd.

It is not exactly clear what led the board to rethink its decision to ask for Sullivan’s resignation. And, given the governor’s call to put the matter to rest, board members were reluctant to elaborate on what their private conversations entailed.

Fralin’s statements before the vote seemed to indicate that board members who might have supported Sullivan two weeks ago were not aware that others on the board felt the same way, and that Kington and Dragas, when they informed board members that they were going to remove Sullivan, implied to each member that they had broad support.

The strong pushback against how the board first made its decision greatly weakened the board and rector’s position. Not only did campus groups criticize the way the board made its decision, but outside groups, including the governor and the American Association of University Professors, also questioned the board’s actions.

That outcry gave board members who were uncertain about ousting Sullivan time to organize.

Immediately before the meeting, Dragas and Sullivan met privately in what appeared to be an effort to reconcile their differences. “As rector and president, we actually have far more in common than not, and, working together in close communication, we can jointly agree upon the best strategic vision for the school, and a realistic and measurable roadmap to make that vision a reality,” Dragas said of the meeting. Board members would not say if that conversation affected the vote.

Planning for What's Next

The general call after the meeting was one of unity. “There is no time for residual hostility towards anyone perceived to have been on the other side of recent disagreements,” Sullivan said in her speech. “We can go forward with what is best for the university only if we go forward together.” Sullivan singled out Carl Zeithaml, dean of the university's McIntire School of Commerce, whom the board had selected as interim president a week earlier, thanking him for stepping forward and calling him a "great citizen of the university."

It remains to be seen whether the various campus constituencies can reconcile what have sometimes seemed to be competing notions of the university’s direction.

In a statement before the vote, Dragas said the events of the past two weeks have actually unified the campus around a series of questions it needs to address. “Prior to these events, there seemed to be a roadblock between the board's sense of urgency around our future in a number of critical areas, and the administration's response to that urgency,” she said. “Also, many of our concerns about the direction of the university remained unknown to all but a few. This situation has now keenly focused the attention of the entire university community on the reality and urgency of the specific challenges facing the university  – most of which, once again, are not unique to U.Va. – but whose structural and long-term nature do require a deliberate and strategic approach.”

Most of Dragas's critics in the last two weeks agreed that issues such as the evaporation of state support and the spread of online education are huge shifts for U.Va. and public universities generally. But they tended to argue that the best solutions at a place as educationally and financially strong as U.Va. require a more measured approach, one that includes strong faculty roles and preserving the liberal arts. They argued that the board had not given sufficient explanation for why removing Sullivan would address any of the challenges that Dragas noted.

Virginia Governor Robert F. McDonnell  will be one of the first to weigh in on the university’s direction. On Sunday, McDonnell will decide the fate of 5 of the board’s 15 voting seats. Three of those will be brand-new appointments to vacant seats. He will also make a decision whether or not to reappoint Dragas and Robert D. Hardie, another board member, to second terms. Both were appointed by McDonnell’s predecessor, Tim Kaine.

With Dragas’s term as rector ending July 1 regardless of whether she’s reappointed, and with Kington, who would have taken her place, now off the board, the visitors will have to determine their own leadership.

In her statement Friday, Dragas laid out a list of 10 challenges the university will have to address if it wants to remain a top university, including the role of technology and Internet courses, increasing accountability, and federal and state funding decreases. She also questioned the lack of a universitywide strategic plan. That criticism, however, ran counter to the statements of other administrators. In a May 3 memo about the university's academic direction, Sullivan said she was told at the time she was hired not to engage in a broad strategic planning effort.

Fralin, whose term on the board ends July 1, called on the board, when it reconvenes after new members are appointed, to begin a strategic planning process.

The structure of the governing board will also be debated. During the past two weeks, faculty members called for a voting position on the board for a U.Va. faculty member. After Tuesday’s meeting, Cohen would not say whether the faculty would continue to push for that position, but that the university would engage in “discussion about how to restructure the governance of the university.” Any changes to the board would have to be approved by state lawmakers.

Regardless of whether they get an actual seat at the table, it is apparent that the university’s faculty, which played a major role in reinstating Sullivan and now seems much more organized and engaged than it was prior to the decision, will continue to play a major role in determining the university’s direction.

“I think it has given new life and importance to the faculty assembly in carrying out its responsibilities,” Broad said.

Many said the controversy over the past two weeks helped the university reaffirm the beliefs that are central to its identity and mission. Over the past two weeks there has been no shortage of mentions of Thomas Jefferson, the university’s founder, and his intention to create a university where men -- and now women -- could receive a well-rounded education. It's safe to assume there will be many more such references as U.Va. tries to adjust its founder's vision to the challenges of the 21st century.

 

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