Trouble With Transparency

What’s happening at U.Va. is hardly an isolated phenomenon, though this example is more public than most. In fact, the focus of my dissertation research is this process of “strategic change” at universities, how it’s imagined and implemented, and how it’s perceived and experienced by organizational participants.

June 28, 2012

On June 10th, Teresa A. Sullivan stepped down from her position as President of the prestigious University of Virginia citing a “philosophical difference of opinion” between herself and the university’s Board of Visitors (BoV). Since her resignation, which was requested by the BoV, members of the U.Va. community have expressed shock and surprise at the apparently sudden decision to “oust” Sullivan, who had only completed two years of her term. The Board, which at first gave no reasons for this extreme move, eventually describing concerns that included the need for the university to adopt more online education and to make program cuts to unprofitable academic areas. Students and faculty have responded with demonstrations and calls for the resignation of the Board’s Rector, Helen Dragas.

What’s happening at U.Va. is hardly an isolated phenomenon, though this example is more public than most. In fact, the focus of my dissertation research is this process of “strategic change” at universities, how it’s imagined and implemented, and how it’s perceived and experienced by organizational participants. The breakdown of the governance process at a university is usually easy enough to spot after the fact, when specific incidents draw attention from outside the organization. But how does a situation devolve to the point where such failures take place? 

From this perspective, the conflict at U. Va. is primarily about transparency and agency in organizational change. Transparency in this sense refers to the openness of the governance process: what and how much should the university community (and other “stakeholders”) know about decision-making and how it happens? An open governance process is also tied to issues of accountability. Who will be responsible for implementing “change” in the university, and how will we assess whether objectives and goals have been reached? What happens if other community members aren’t satisfied with the changes made?

Transparency is related directly to inclusivity, the question of who should be involved in making governance decisions in the university. Participation in decision-making is a means of exercising agency, and transparency affects this because when we cannot “see” how the process works, we cannot find ways to participate in it. In the case of Teresa Sullivan, there was no participation or transparency; there was no pretense of inclusion. The university’s BoV made their decision without input from the faculty, and the decision apparently had been brewing for weeks, according to the email trail.

Transparency is also about communication, and this is key to the problem with “trust” that has been raised so much throughout the unfolding of these events. Building trust in leadership, especially in a complex organization like a university, takes time and can be a messy process.

Notably, the “pace of change” in the university as well as Sullivan’s approach to governance have been central concerns raised by the BoV. Sullivan’s “style” has been described, by her, as a preference for “slow and steady”, incremental change involving “measured planning and buy-in from faculty and other constituents”. She has also “criticized the board’s “corporate, top-down leadership” as “not being in the university’s best interests”.

Many university administrations and boards--including the BoV at U.Va.--seem to believe that “hard choices” must also be “quick choices” and the logic they use is one of “responding” to the rapid pace of change outside the organization, and to competition in the larger higher education market. Universities, it’s argued, should be “flexible” and adapt quickly. At a time when change does indeed seem to be happening at a pace too quick for a more thorough response, this logic often prevails. But it’s a logic that must be questioned, not only in the context of the university’s long history but also because the market, and its pressures, should not be the primary determinants of governance practices. It’s no coincidence that part of the U.Va. debate has been about the corporatization of the university’s governance.

U.Va.’s predicament provides a clear example of some core governance issues at the point where the communicative “boundary” between internal issues and external scrutiny has been crossed, where public concern begins to play a strong role. Rector Helen Dragas is incorrect when she writes that “[board members] alone are appointed to make these decisions on behalf of the university, free of influence from outside political, personal or media pressure". It seems odd to deny that the nationwide outcry, the campus protests involving students and faculty, and the statements of support for Sullivan, have influenced the BoV’s eventual, unanimous decision to reinstate her. Indeed, Vice Rector Mark Kington’s resignation, and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’’s demand that an immediate decision be made about Sullivan, show that power also lies beyond the BoV now that the issue has “gone public”.

Universities have long been esoteric and elitist institutions; they have operated on unique principles--which are not necessarily democratic--and there is an ongoing conflict between meritocratic and hierarchical approaches, and collegial, participatory ones. Their operations have never been exposed to more scrutiny than in current times. Increased transparency is thought to be one answer to the problem of trust, and communication is a way of achieving it. Universities would do well to pay attention to the lessons learned from U.Va., including something Teresa Sullivan already knew--when it comes to governance and change, sometimes you have to waste time to save time.

Hamilton, Ontario in Canada

Melonie Fullick is currently a Ph.D. student working on research in post-secondary education, policy, and governance. She is a regular contributor at University of Venus and can be found in virtual space on Twitter [@qui_oui] and at Speculative Diction at University Affairs.

Share Article


Melonie Fullick

Back to Top