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Questions of Leadership

June 26, 2012

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors’ vote today about reversing the ouster of President Teresa Sullivan has enough drama to make one wonder whether it was scripted.

What began as a surprise announcement of the president’s resignation was followed by two weeks of campus turmoil, the resignation of a board member and at least one faculty member, a 12-hour meeting that stretched past two in the morning, the appointment of an interim president who then promptly suspended his efforts to fill that role, and calls from almost every corner of the university to reinstate the president.

To top it off, Governor Robert F. McDonnell called on the board Friday to speak with a unified voice after today’s meeting or he would ask for the resignation of every board member.

If there’s still any wonder why the higher education world’s attention is trained on Charlottesville, Va., today, consider the major questions that have become tied up in the vote:

  • Who is going to lead one of the country's most prominent public universities?
  • What pace of change should a university adopt in addressing looming financial and educational challenges? Statements over the past few weeks divide the institution into two philosophies: One, pushed by the chair of the board, Helen E. Dragas, demands a faster pace of change to address looming challenges. A second, embraced by Sullivan in remarks to the board June 18, embraces a slower, more measured, pace with a strong faculty role.
  • How necessary are certain academic programs – particularly low-enrollment foreign languages and other humanities disciplines -- to the educational mission of a university?
  • How readily must a university embrace online education efforts in order to build the institution’s brand or help control the cost of educating students?

And then there’s the big one that underlies the backlash against the board’s initial decision more than two weeks ago: Who gets to determine the answer to all these questions?

The board’s actions put it, and today’s vote, at the center of a national dialogue about the role of various stakeholders, particularly trustees and faculty members, in major decisions about colleges and universities. To many, statements by the board’s leadership represent a view – pushed by interest groups such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni – that governing boards need to be more involved in shaping their institutions. That requires them being less deferential to faculty members on academics, an area where the faculty has traditionally held significant independence.

“Trustees are the only ones legally responsible for balancing the competing interests of the institution and determining what is in the best interest of students … and the taxpayers they represent,” said Anne D. Neal, president of the Council.

But the involvement of trustees in areas typically governed by faculty members, and the effort to make more decisions without significant faculty input, is bound to create strife. Cutting them out of major decisions entirely is likely to lead to an uproar, and tends to lead to faculty members and others to question the board’s legitimacy, as Virginia shows.

On Monday, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, the regional body that accredits the University of Virginia, said the board’s actions have raised questions about the board’s actions might have put it out of compliance with three of the organization’s standards, among them the “faculty role in governance.”

Ideological Consistency

Several of the statements Dragas has made in the wake of Sullivan’s resignation are consistent with what groups such as ACTA push. There is no evidence that Dragas’s ideas come directly from ACTA, but they do reflect very similar philosophies about presidential leadership, the proper role of the board, and the urgency of cost-cutting efforts.

In 2005, Neal recommended “the hiring of presidents who will be agents of change.”

“An era of accountability requires a new style of presidential leadership,” she said. “Board chairmen should be primed to insist that boards cast a wide net and find innovative leaders who are not afraid to question the status quo.”

Dragas’s statement announcing Sullivan’s resignation to the university's vice presidents and deans echoed that sentiment. “To achieve these aspirations, the board feels the need for a bold leader who can help develop, articulate, and implement a concrete and achievable strategic plan to re-elevate the university to its highest potential,” she said. “We need a leader with a great willingness to adapt the way we deliver our teaching, research, and patient care to the realities of the external environment.  We need a leader who is able to passionately convey a vision to our community, and effectively obtain gifts and buy-in towards our collective goals.”

Both ACTA and Dragas have also stressed the primacy of boards in decision-making, often at the expense of faculty members. Like Neal earlier, Dragas stressed the board’s unique position to judge the university at the board's June 18 meeting. “While the broader U.Va. community – our students, faculty, alumni, and donors, among others – have varied and important interactions and touch-points with our University leadership, the Board is the one entity that has a unique vantage point that enables us to oversee the big picture of those interactions, and how the leadership shapes the strategic trajectory of the University,” Dragas said at the board’s meeting last week. “Simply put, we have the responsibility, on behalf of the entire community, to make these important and often difficult calls.”

For ACTA, this philosophy means that board members should be empowered to make decisions that were traditionally the province of the faculty, such as decisions about academic programs.

“In many instances, governing boards assume that academics is an area that is off limits, that academic matters are solely the province of the faculty, and that for the board to intervene in this sacrosanct area is somehow a violation of ‘academic freedom,’“ wrote Robert C. Dickeson, former president of the University of Northern Colorado and co-founder of the Lumina Foundation for Education, in a publication for ACTA. “These assumptions are simply false, and continuing to foster them only delays the board’s critical and necessary analysis of the most important aspect of its institution’s operation.”

An editorial by The Wall Street Journal on Monday reiterated this philosophy, saying that if the board reinstates Sullivan as a result of faculty pressure, "it ought to disband, drop the pretense of outside supervision, and turn the whole place over to the faculty that really runs it."

But that philosophy tends to run counter to the traditional view of shared governance held by groups such as the American Association of University Professors, which has viewed such efforts as detrimental to the overall health of the academy. "All decisions on retention and nonretention of administrators should be based on institutionalized and jointly determined procedures which include significant faculty involvement," the association states in its statement on Faculty Participation in the Selection, Evaluation, and Retention of Administrators, a passage it cited in its resolution calling for the board to reconsider its decision.

“The common theme of many of these pamphlets is that governance boards should play the role of activists by taking a more strident role in making academic decisions about curriculum and programs and challenging shared governance,” said Johann Neem, a historian of higher education at Western Washington University. “Ultimately, this is about redistributing power upwards, toward management and away from the faculty who carry out the university’s research and teaching mission.”

Not everything Dragas has said has been consistent with what groups like ACTA have pushed, and many of the board’s actions actually run directly counter to the group’s goals. One of ACTA’s major emphases is transparent governance. While the group has been one of the few groups to come out in support of the board’s action, including a column by Neal in The Washington Post this weekend, they note that the process was “regrettable.”

Questions of Process

The U.Va. faculty’s backlash against the Board of Visitors has primarily been rooted it its opposition to the way the trustees – particularly the rector and vice rector – went about removing her, behind closed doors and without faculty input.

Reinstating Sullivan has come to be viewed as a move that would rectify those missteps.

On the day after the board’s announcement, the executive committee of the Faculty Senate said it found the board’s initial statement about “inadequate and unsatisfactory.” The committee noted its respect for Sullivan as a leader, but it also noted that, “as elected representatives of the faculty, we are entitled to a full and candid explanation of this sudden and drastic change in university leadership."

Questioning the process the board took has been the uniting factor of disparate groups, from ACTA to the Faculty Senate to the state’s governor.

Many have used the controversy to call for reform of the board, particularly the idea of a board based solely on gubernatorial appointments. Faculty members have argued that they should have a voting position on the board. Most public universities do not have a voting faculty representative on their governing boards.

In a column in The Daily Progress this weekend, former Virginia Governor James S. Gilmore III, while criticizing the process, wrote that Tuesday’s vote is a dangerous moment for higher education in the state. He noted that the state has failed to satisfactorily establish the board’s governance rules and responsibilities over the past 14 years, leaving it open to questions of what its proper role is.

“The greatest tragedy of this crisis would be if the boards of our public universities become so intimidated that they retreat to a role as ‘rubber stamps’ and fund-raisers, leaving oversight on behalf of the public unfulfilled,” he wrote. “Let’s hope the egregious conduct of the board in this case doesn’t lead to wrong decisions on board governance. There is only one answer: The boards of visitors must govern their colleges. There is no one else to provide the independent oversight on behalf of the citizens to which the colleges belong.”

Given the seemingly strong differences of opinion on the board about where the university should be heading and who should lead it, today’s meeting is likely to be a protracted debate.

McDonnell and the faculty have called for a clear and detailed explanation of whatever action the board takes. How the board manages to answer all the questions surrounding the presidential job, and maintain its legitimacy as the institutions’ sole governing authority, remains to be seen.

 

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