Servant of Two Masters

June 25, 2012

Michael Strine is in an awkward position.

A year ago, when University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan named Strine as one of two executive vice presidents at the institution, as well as the chief operating officer, the general perception was that he was a major pickup for the university. As the vice president for finance, chief financial officer, and treasurer at Johns Hopkins University for three years, he had extensive experience in the operational side of the university. Sullivan even called him a “worthy successor” to Leonard Sandridge, the university’s beloved executive vice president, who had spent 44 years at  U.Va.

The Board of Visitors’ announcement June 10 that Sullivan would be resigning after just two years in office – and the two weeks of turmoil at the university since – also threw Strine’s position at the university into question. Sources close to Sullivan, who declined to speak on the record, have named Strine as a key player in the rector and vice rector’s controversial efforts to remove Sullivan. Those sources say Strine met frequently with board members – without informing Sullivan of what was discussed – and was highly critical of the president's leadership of the institution. In the ensuing weeks, he, unlike most of the university’s other administrators, has refrained from speaking about the matter or criticizing the board’s handling of the resignation, raising further questions.

In a statement to Inside Higher Ed on Friday and in two other statements since the resignation, Strine denied allegations that he was involved in the board’s decision or that he criticized Sullivan's performance to the board. “It is my role, and that of other officers of the board, to work on behalf of both the president and the board,” he said. “My professional duty, as true of all other board officers, requires that I provide both the president and the board with whatever factual/financial information or advice they request or need. It is not my role nor have I participated in the board’s decision-making concerning the university’s president, which is the exclusive prerogative of the Board of Visitors.”

The accusations surrounding Strine, none of which have been on the record or substantiated with evidence beyond the word of well-informed sources, highlight the often-difficult position of being a vice president – particularly one on the nonacademic side of the university – in a world where a complicated reporting relationship with the governing board can often divide an administrator’s loyalties. Based on his statements, Strine believed he acted consistent with how he viewed his role, answering questions from two bosses. There has been no evidence that Strine acted in a way that other chief officers would not have. But outsiders can construe actions that are perceived as routine by people in administrative roles as surreptitious.

‘Hoo's Talking to ‘Hoo?

Most organizational charts show direct reporting lines between the chief officers and the president and a direct reporting line from the president to the board. Most do not show any formal relationship between other administrators and the board, aside from auditors, who typically report to both the board and chief administrators, and board secretaries, who report directly to the board. But such rigidity is rarely the case in practice.

Board members at most universities regularly seek information from chief administrators to inform decision-making about the university’s direction. Former chief financial officers, presidents, and university governing board members say there are few communication practices that are standard across all institutions. At some institutions, all information between chief officers and board members is funneled through the president. At others, the flow of information is less regulated, with board members and administrators regularly interacting.

The one rule that should be etched in stone, these people say, is that there should be no surprises. “It’s important that somewhere, some way, somehow, there is presidential engagement,” said Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Legon has served on several governing boards, both public and private. “You have to have a primary understanding between the board, the president, and the administrators about what the priorities are and how communication will happen.”

It is the president’s responsibility to set the tone for what kind of communication should take place at their institution, these people say.

The impression conveyed by Strine and others at U.Va. is that communication between board members and top administrators did not always go through the president, and that Sullivan generally trusted her deputies to interact with board members.

Divided Loyalties

Kent John Chabotar, president of Guilford College, is in an interesting position to watch the dynamic unfold. Chabotar previously served as the chief financial officer at Bowdoin College. He also teaches at both the annual Harvard University Seminar for New Presidents and the Association of Governing Board’s annual seminar for new board members.

Chabotar said chief administrators should answer primarily to the president. “The reality is that, in my view, a CFO owes his or her first allegiance to the CEO,” he said. “He or she works for the CEO, and unless there’s a clear and present danger to the integrity of the institution … when in doubt, back your boss.”

Chabotar said the only times it would make sense to cut a president out of the line of communication would be if the president were engaged in malfeasance or if he or she were taking steps that would, in the short term, bankrupt the institution.

If the president has made a public statement about the institution, such as a policy direction, a chief officer should not go against that statement in conversations with the board, Chabotar said.

Most agree that an administrator bringing concerns about a university’s direction or strategy to a board instead of a president would be a breach of loyalty. There has been no evidence that Strine did that, only evidence of e-mail discussions that did not appear to include the president.

Administrators outside U.Va. say the reporting situation gets complicated when board members request information from administrators without going through the president. There’s a significant difference, they say, between asking a chief administrator for information about the institution, such as the latest information on endowment performance or a fund-raising campaign, and asking him or her about the university’s strategic direction, particularly when board members might want something different than the president does.

The e-mails obtained by The Cavalier Daily show that the board regularly communicated with Strine, as well as the university’s other top administrators, on issues without including Sullivan. In these e-mails, Strine reacted to requests from the board, rather than proactively going to the board with information.

Chabotar said board members, who tend come from business backgrounds, can naturally gravitate toward financial officers, who often “speak the same language” as them, and start establishing different relationships with these officers than the president or other administrators.

Legon of AGB said such interactions between board members and administrators can often compromise a president’s deputies. “We encourage the president to help board members understand the awkward situation that direct inquiries can raise with senior staff members,” Legon said. “Presidents should find a way to protect their vice president and senior cabinet members from these awkward spots by giving a clear understanding about how these communications are to take place.”

In a statement to The Daily Progress, Strine said it was his role to “regularly meet with members of the Board of Visitors at their request on a variety of issues.” He also said he was made aware of the board’s  “dissatisfaction with the president’s progress on certain goals in group meetings that included the President and others and I worked very hard and consistently on her behalf to close that gap.”

Strine told The Daily Progress that there were issues he would not discuss with the board. “He acknowledged meeting with members of the governing board and said they posed critical questions about Sullivan,” the paper wrote. “He said he told the board members to take their concerns to Sullivan, according to two people who were there.”

A broken chain of communication was at the heart of a lawsuit at Washburn University in Kansas, where two former administrators sued the institution, alleging that the president dismissed them because he considered them disloyal for having shared information with board members about issues related to controversial spending and other topics. The president disputed the allegations.

Not-So-Public Relations

Given the degree of interaction between Strine and the board, it’s easy to understand how faculty members and others upset about Sullivan’s resignation might raise questions about Strine’s role in the process and see his actions as disloyal.

But based on what Chabotar, Legon, and others said, Strine's actions as he has described them don’t appear to have been outside the norm of what other chief financial officers would do.

Strine’s actions in the wake of the resignation, however, have not helped his case in the public's eye. In one e-mail to Dragas and Kington on June 12, Strine offered for himself and John Simon, U.Va.'s other executive vice president and provost, to “draft a statement of the academic and financial context that informs the urgency of your action.”

Strine and Simon put out a statement on June 14 calling the board’s action “resolute and authoritative.” At that point, members of the U.Va. community were questioning the actions and loyalty of both men.

But the following week Strine and Simon’s actions diverged in a way that makes Strine look more loyal to the board than to Sullivan. Simon spoke at a Faculty Senate meeting on June 17 and was critical of the board’s process. “I am now wondering whether my own beliefs about the values of higher education are consistent with our board,” Simon said.

Strine has made no public statement to the university community since the June 14 letter about a resolute board.

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