Much of the conversation on effective governance looks at what boards do as a group, and that’s all to the good. The best boards are those in which the sum adds up to more than the individual parts. Boards operate as collectives of individuals.
But we don’t choose a group of people for board service, we choose individuals. And what are -- and should be -- the competencies of those individuals? This essay looks at the individual competencies of board members that will help improve how the collective governs.
Individuals matter to boards. While the trustees of public colleges and universities or state systems are usually gubernatorial appointees, private or independent institutions are typically populated in “self-perpetuating fashion,” nominated by current board members. Some college and university boards have constituent representatives -- for example, students, faculty, members of a religious order, alumni -- and therefore accept nominations made by others.
Whatever the selection process, people join boards for a host of reasons and with a wide variety of backgrounds and expertise. Some trustees have never served on a nonprofit board, let alone that of an academic institution. Others have corporate board experience and may lack knowledge of higher education and shared governance. Some trustees serve to “give back,” while others have more personally motivated (looks good on a résumé) or political reasons, or a combination of these.
The point is that most trustees come to the board table with no formal training about board service, no clue about what to expect and little understanding of what’s expected of them.
Thus, the importance of a comprehensive orientation for new trustees. Too often orientations, if done at all, are quick and incomplete (and include a campus tour and lunch with a student or two). Effective orientations should provide an overview of the university or system, including budget, risk, mission and values; bring new trustees up to speed on the external environment and the context in which they must govern; and, finally, orient newcomers to how the board governs, the board’s culture and what it means to be an effective trustee. Unfortunately, this last element is often overlooked -- and with consequences.
One Bad Apple
We hear many stories about boards and governance gone awry, and oftentimes about a “rogue” trustee -- someone who doesn’t understand the practice of governance or disruptively violates the culture of the board. Although boards and presidents hope they never have a rogue in their midst, a small 2009 study of community college presidents reported that 97 percent of respondents had “personally experienced or knew of colleagues who had a rogue trustee on their board.”
The behaviors of rogues can vary, depending on who’s describing them, from relatively benign (meddlesome, micromanaging) to malicious (attacking or undermining the president). And although they can be elected or appointed, elected rogues are especially problematic because they typically can only be removed by the electorate or when their terms end. Therefore, they can do a lot of damage over both the short and long term.
Start With the Selection
It is common practice for institutions with self-perpetuating boards to build a roster of talented individuals. Distinguished alumni, community members and corporate and nonprofit leaders are cultivated for future board openings. Institutions typically match potential board members against a list of criteria that include: demographic characteristics (e.g., age, gender, race/ethnicity), geographic location (e.g., nearby, state, region, international) and expertise (e.g., financial, real estate, social media, IT, PR, health care and even higher education).
Some colleges and universities add other criteria to the mix, such as:
resource development capacity (e.g., ability to get/connections to resources, ability to give)
knowledge of key audiences (e.g., current or former charity CEO; former college president; corporate partner; foundation/grant maker; large community-based nonprofit)
Boards with a range of expertise and characteristics tend to govern better than those that are quite homogenous. One governance consultant tells the story of a board in which half the members were lawyers and the other half were church leaders. They had limited expertise in or experience with key areas such as finance and audit, risk, real estate, capital projects, and higher education. And, as the consultant said, they were in constant battle, either arguing or praying.
For public universities, which must accept political appointees, it is good practice for presidents and board chairs to identify areas of strength and weakness in their board’s composition and meet with the governor’s appointment staff to discuss what to consider in making appointments. Some public institutions go a step farther and develop a list of individuals who meet stated criteria and take those names to the governor.
Then Add Competencies
Savvy boards and presidents are moving beyond individual demographics and expertise (and individual wealth) to get to actual individual governance competencies: in other words, the ability to do the job.
A 2009 report entitled “Competency-Based Governance” from the American Hospital Association’s Center for Healthcare Governance provides an excellent distillation of some key competencies that should be sought in all hospital board members and that apply equally well to higher education trustees. They include: accountability, collaboration, innovative thinking, complexity management, organizational awareness, professionalism, relationship building, strategic orientation, information seeking, change leadership and team leadership. For each of these competencies, the report defines the individual trustee competency, lists behaviors associated with the competency and provides sample interview questions to identify the competency in a prospective trustee.
Let’s take innovative thinking as an example.
Defined: The ability to apply complex concepts, develop creative solutions or adapt previous solutions in new ways for breakthroughs in the field.
Behaviors: Makes complex ideas or situations clear, simple or understandable, as in reframing a problem or using an analogy; fosters creation of new concepts that may not be obvious to others to explain situations or resolve problems; looks at things in new ways that yield new or innovative approaches -- breakthrough thinking; shifts the paradigm; starts a new line of thinking; encourages these behaviors in others.
Sample interview questions: Think of a situation or situations where you were involved in reinventing or creating a new program, product or service.
How did you identify and help others understand all the factors contributing to the need to reinvent the existing resource or to create something completely new?
How did you help make complex ideas or situations more clear or understandable?
How did you help explain problems or obstacles in ways that may not have been obvious to others?
How did you help others involved in the creative process look at things in new ways?
Have you participated in a process of breakthrough thinking and what role did you play in the process?
The AHA report also provides an example from Presbyterian Healthcare Services of the competency-based governance model in use with sitting members where trustees are evaluated against expected individual competencies. Some of the items listed on PHS board members’ competencies and definitions table are as follows:
Competency: Team player.
Definition: Encourages and facilitates cooperation within the board.
Competency: Demonstrated commitment to the mission, vision, values and ethical responsibilities to the community served by PHS.
Definition: Uses Presbyterian’s vision, values, purpose, strategies and the PHS Plan as a basis for discussions and decisions.
Competency: Demonstrated willingness to devote the time necessary for board work, including board education.
Definition: Welcomes requests for work to be completed at other times than board meetings.
Another example comes from the YMCA, which has developed a Board Leadership Competency model. The model includes four overarching areas of importance: mission advancement, collaboration, operational effectiveness and personal growth. Underneath each of those is a set of competencies including definitions and checklists.
For example, a competency under collaboration is inclusion, defined as embracing contributions from a wide range of people; its checklist includes these (among others):
Embraces the differences of all people (i.e., culture, ability, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, nation of origin, etc.);
Treats all people with dignity and respect;
Builds consensus by intentionally listening and engaging in diverse perspectives;
Promotes cooperation and collaboration with other organizations to achieve mutual benefits to all stakeholders; and
Advocates for and designs the strategic vision that reflects the diverse needs and concerns of the whole community.
Put Competencies Into Action
Some colleges and universities are already moving in the direction of individual board member competencies. For example, Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh has added a list of demonstrated inclusion competencies to its board composition matrix that includes more traditional characteristics such as alumni status, professional background and demographics. And, in fact, most higher education boards would be well served by adding an individual competency approach to their current trustee recruitment and screening efforts.
For instance, the governance or trusteeship committee could begin by determining and defining the competencies that are most needed for effective board dialogues and decisions and then seek feedback from the rest of the board members, key administrators and faculty leaders who interact regularly with the board.
The next step would be to identify the corresponding behaviors that demonstrate each competency or skill. The board could then use its list to assess both current board members and future board members against the competencies with an eye to where there are gaps (for prospective trustees to fill) and as areas for current trustee education or training and develop a plan to build trustee competence.
Boards are groups, and the best ones function like teams. But even the best teams understand the contributions of each team member and have expectations for the skills and competencies each must bring. Similarly, the best boards pay close attention to what each individual brings to the table -- not only in terms of background, skill sets, demographic characteristics and functional areas of expertise but also the competencies that encompass that person’s ability to function as part of a high-performing board.
Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower Inc., a board governance consulting firm; a board member at BoardSource in Washington; and a trustee at Wheaton College, Mass. Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a trustee at the University of La Verne.
Earlier this month, Middlebury College was beset by what could fairly be termed the Academic Perfect Storm. Several hundred students on the Vermont campus shouted down Charles Murray, an author of the controversial The Bell Curve, apparently outraged by the visiting scholar’s claims that African-Americans are intellectually inferior to whites because of their genetic makeup. Murray’s talk was sponsored by a conservative student group affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute and was to be moderated by Middlebury professor Allison Stanger. Not only did the lecture never materialize because of shouting, shoving and other intrusions, but Stanger also was injured in the process.
Much has already been written, tweeted and posted about this event. The college has launched several levels of inquiry, while apologizing to the community, alumni and others. The administration has vowed “accountability” for students and others who engage in violence and thus thwarted the event.
Among the major players in this turbulent drama, Middlebury’s president, Laurie Patton, merits special deference. A New York Times editorial lauded her firm and visible commitment to free expression: “She did this admirably in defending Mr. Murray’s invitation and delivering a public apology to him that Middlebury’s thoughtless agitators should have delivered themselves.” Further background enhanced this encomium. Despite growing easiness about the imminent Murray lecture, Patton consistently reaffirmed her commitment to host the event. And just days before the gathering, she forcefully reminded Middlebury students of the college’s historic commitment to free expression, even for hateful views and words.
She also agreed to chair the event in person and courageously remained on stage throughout the turmoil. Beyond offering cordial hospitality, Patton had recently issued a two-page set of policies governing potentially contentious events, offering a model scenario that contains a firm warning that “disruption may also result in arrest and criminal charges.” One of the student organizers praised Patton’s grace and courage as “the one positive thing of the night.”
Otherwise, however, the evening seems to have been a disaster. Although only students were officially invited to attend, many observers noted the catalytic presence of a dozen or so nonstudents wearing black clothing and face masks that mirrored those of the disruptive contingent at a protest at the University of California, Berkeley, several weeks earlier. Given the predictably contentious character of Murray’s widely published writings, tighter security would surely have been appropriate. A plan to extricate the speaker in the event of turmoil was invoked at the 11th hour but foundered immediately when protesters invaded the seemingly secure site; more advance planning and escape routes would have seemed an obvious imperative. In that and several other dimensions, Middlebury’s logistical preparations seemed woefully inadequate.
A few colleges and universities have reluctantly concluded that a scheduled event posed so grave a threat that cancellation offered the only tenable alternative, with hopes that rescheduling would help. Thus, for example, when former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill initially posted his essay about “little Eichmanns” while planning several speeches, several colleges felt safety and survival demanded what would otherwise have seemed a cowardly act. On a quite different occasion, the then chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln was privy to carefully sorted, screened and verified electronic warnings of potential chaos attending a speech by (surprisingly) Bill Ayres, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who had once been a leader of the Weather Underground, a radical left-wing organization. While cancellation is hardly a welcome choice, it is option that should not always be categorically rejected.
A vivid personal experience suggests another approach. In the spring of 1983, protestors at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I served as president of the system, shouted down in its opening minutes a long-scheduled speech by former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, who by then had traveled a far different political pathway. Then Chancellor Irving Shain and I agreed that if Cleaver was willing to return to Madison in the near future, we would ensure adequate security during his appearance, even if that required a secure sound booth. The cost of such an arrangement, we realized, would not be trivial.
We were delighted when Cleaver agreed to make a return visit under those different conditions. We specifically affirmed for the media that, “in keeping with the University of Wisconsin’s longstanding commitment to free speech, if Cleaver wanted to come back to finish his speech, he could do so.” Regrettably, the turnout for the rescheduled speech was sparse for various reasons, including the academic calendar. But we concluded that our investment was well worth making, despite the cost, in the interest of free expression.
Campuses will continue to invite controversial speakers and face turmoil over it. What other advice is worth considering in order to keep such turmoil to a minimum? First, careful advance planning with regard to sponsorship and other arrangements seems vital. It may well be worth requiring the sponsors -- whether students, faculty or, ideally, both -- to make firm commitments in writing about the specific steps they propose to take to maximize the success of the event, essentially in lieu of a bond or insurance, though without a financial component.
Second, the Middlebury experience seems to warrant far greater security planning than was evident at the rural Vermont campus. That mandate would, for example, include a clearer location of responsibility within the administration and sufficient engagement of the college’s general counsel, the campus or local chief of police, and other senior officials with expertise in scheduling major events.
Third, formal faculty involvement at Middlebury seems to have been limited if not absent. The location of such responsibility should target a Faculty Senate or other governance body, with a smaller executive committee capable of being convened almost momentarily in event of a crisis. An abundance of relevant materials exists for this purpose, and it may well be that Middlebury’s faculty leadership has in fact consulted them in the past.
Finally, we can hardly overlook the responsibility of the student body. There is much still be to learned about how and why the dozen black-clad and masked intruders were able to enter -- as well as why so few of the rank-and-file Middlebury students resisted or were even indifferent as essentially an angry mob turned their backs on the speaker and continue to shout and jeer. A strong elected student government seems indispensable to such a liberal arts college, visible both to the general and social media as well as within the broader community of which the institution is a major component. Middlebury seems to offer a promising academic venue within which to establish a sounder approach as the next crisis looms.
Robert M. O’Neil is the former president of the University of Virginia and of the University of Wisconsin System, former director of the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Initiative, and founder of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. He is currently a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities.
When the alleged perpetrator is a person with whom we feel some sort of affiliation or reverence, we start to make excuses and bend over backward to deny the plausibility of the victim’s experience, writes Jamie L. Small.
Everywhere one turns, the idea of disruptive innovation continues to spread, even as academics have cast doubt on the theory’s validity. Put on the agenda by scholars such as Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring, the idea presumes that old institutions, including colleges and universities, will be hard-pressed to change fast enough to meet new external environments. Instead, new technologies and organizations will outcompete the old, even if -- and, in fact, because -- the new ones offer a subpar but cheaper product.
In time, the new institutions will cultivate demand for their products, improve quality and displace the older institutions -- which did not change fast enough. This happens in Silicon Valley, and it will soon happen to campuses across America, Christensen and Eyring warned in their 2011 book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out.
The rhetoric of disruptive innovation combines a theory of organizational change with a theory of time. Existing institutions find innovation difficult because their structures and norms are oriented around doing, and even improving, what they already do -- a phenomenon political scientists call path dependence. Agile new institutions can enter the market because there is demand for more suppliers and they are not beholden to the past.
But such claims have often been married to the presumption that new technologies have sped up the rate of social change, making existing institutions even more vulnerable. And it is this piece -- the narrative of speed -- that has led so many advocates of disruption to believe that we must act now or be left behind.
The narrative of speed is quickly spreading. For instance, the authors of what came to be known as the Spellings Report, issued in 2006 by a commission appointed by then U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, concluded that higher education is a “mature enterprise.” “History is littered with examples of industries that, at their peril,” did not respond to a changing society, the report warned. New technology and global competition mandate a fundamental transformation of education institutions.
In the wake of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors’ decision to remove university president Teresa Sullivan in 2012, the board’s rector at the time, Helen Dragas, asserted that the institution was facing an “existential threat.” The times, Dragas claimed, call for a bold leader willing to impose “a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation” than was Sullivan. “The world,” Dragas proclaimed, “is simply moving too fast.”
Policy makers and university administrators who advocate disruptive innovation are right that all institutions -- and colleges and universities are no exception -- must account for changing external environments. And no institution is ever static. But their proclamations to adapt or die ignore the fact that human environments are the products of human agency. Society is a human construct, not a natural process. Institutions can shape as well as reflect the society and culture around them. True courage is trying, even in the face of hostility and skepticism, to defend what colleges and universities do. But giving in is easier.
In fact, despite all the talk of innovation, what is perhaps most surprising is how familiar and uninteresting recent models of disruptive innovation really are. Yes, they use computers. But the structures of institutions like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America and the ever-expanding Arizona State University online programs are really premised on ideas that date back to the industrial revolution. Managers control the organization. Labor is subdivided into discrete tasks (what WGU calls the disaggregated faculty model) and alienated from the products of their work. In turn, those products -- including curriculum and assessment-- are standardized and work routinized. This is quite old-fashioned.
In contrast, forward-looking companies try to emulate traditional colleges and universities by building large, idyllic campuses where people can interact and be creative. “There is something magical about sharing meals,” said former Google CFO Patrick Pichette a few years ago on why Google discourages telecommuting. “There is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking at the computer, ‘What do you think of this?’” That sounds a lot like the traditional college experience, but, in new-model universities, fundamental aspects of traditional ones -- such as personalized teaching, green lawns, academic freedom, shared governance, meaningful exposure to liberal arts education, and time and autonomy for reflection -- are deemed irrelevant.
Take the argument that Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, made in his co-written 2015 book, Designing the New American University. Because expanding access to college degrees requires innovation, and because they wanted to move fast, ASU embraced technology to outsource teaching through, in Crow’s words, “partnerships to expand and improve the online learning experience, utilizing over 100 third-party tools and services.” Instructional designers work with faculty to design online courses that faculty members once taught. “Coaches,” teaching assistants and adjuncts teach online to students who might have had access to professors on campuses.
Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, celebrates the same reforms at his institution’s online College for America. In a 2013 statement to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, LeBlanc told senators that “not having traditional instructional faculty is not proving to be a problem. We use academics to construct the learning and to do the assessments, but not in any traditional instructional role. Students, working with the aid of a dedicated SNHU coach (or adviser), access rich learning content, their own resources and each other, and it is proving very effective thus far.”
What makes such reforms so hard to resist is the presumption that the world is moving too fast to take stock. All hands must be on deck. The ship is sinking. Legislators are impatient. Faculty members are complacent. But is this true? Is the world changing so fast that all the things colleges and universities are supposed to do and have done have been rendered irrelevant? Are the forces of disruption really that powerful?
The Value of Continuity
To even start answering these questions, we must examine the assumption that all of society is changing too fast for reflection. How do we know that today is moving faster than yesterday? Are we not just importing a storyline that might be true for one sphere of our lives -- technology -- into other spheres where change is slower? Does a story that emanates from Silicon Valley belong or even explain change elsewhere? And is all human activity subject to the same accelerating forces as technological innovation? Can we speed everything up? Should we?
In his 2008 essay “Social Acceleration: Ethical and Political Consequences of a Desynchronized High-Speed Society,” sociologist Hartmut Rosa raises the concern that our world is experiencing desynchronized rates of change. He argues that while technological change may be happening very fast, other realms of our shared lives cannot equally be sped up. That includes, he notes, democratic politics. Bold leaders who believe that the world is changing fast have little patience for “the political system’s fundamental inability to accelerate.” But “democratic political decision making” is always slow, Rosa writes, because “processes of deliberation and aggregation in a pluralistic democratic society inevitably take time.”
The same is true for higher education. Some parts of our world may be changing fast, but it’s not clear that one can speed up the rate of change in higher education without significant damage. Yet the narrative of speed, imported from the world of technology into the world of education, serves powerful interests. When we believe we have no time to slow down because the world is changing too fast, we prevent ourselves from asking what kinds of institutions we need. We raise our hands in surrender to what appear to be inexorable forces but are really human aspirations. To those who believe that all spheres of society are changing as fast as technology, there is no time to wait for those not already on board. The only way to stay afloat is to allow visionaries at the top to act boldly. Other people should follow along or be left behind.
Innovators dismiss those who might want to slow down and think, or who worry about what might be lost. We must not sit around and watch faculty members “deliberate while shifts in policy, culture and technology flash by at warp speed,” ASU’s Crow proclaims. There is no time for shared governance.
What these visionaries ignore is that institutions and ideas do not become outdated just like Apple computers. Moreover, disruptive innovation is a language of change but not always a description of the reality of it. As Harvard University historian Jill Lepore has written, disruptive innovation is “not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity.”
But we need continuity, too. Indeed, higher education institutions’ capacity to evolve slowly may be one of their chief virtues. Yes, today’s colleges and universities are vastly different than those of centuries past. But, as disruptive innovators condescendingly remind us, much remains the same. It is this ability of institutions to create spaces insulated from fast change that enables them to maintain forms of knowing that might otherwise disappear, to invest in scholarship that takes decades to pay off, and to educate students with ideas and perspectives that are not always prevalent in public discourse.
If we truly had courage, we would not give in so fast. Colleges and universities today are changing too quickly, not too slowly. Tradition has not been strong enough to withstand external pressure.
In such a context, true courage requires saying that enough is enough. It requires defending the college or university as an academic institution. It requires making clear that some things are worth saving and even savoring -- that continuity has benefits. It requires attributing long-term trends, such as the erosion of tenure or the decline of the liberal arts and public funding, to human beings rather than to disruptive technologies.
If we had courage, we would celebrate the fact that academic life moves slowly. Research takes time. Teaching does, too. To educate a human being requires her or him to step outside of the busyness of daily life. Developing new skills and knowledge takes years. It is even harder to inculcate in students such intellectual virtues as curiosity.
Education is a slow but necessary effort to transform people. It cannot be rushed, at least if we take it seriously. As I wrote in a previous essay, “time is formative.” It harms universities’ research and teaching mission to give in to the narrative of speed, as Maggie Berg, a professor of English at Queen’s University, and Barbara K. Seeber, a professor of English at Brock University, both in Canada, also conclude in their recent book The Slow Professor.
If we had courage, we would acknowledge that education cannot be done by machines or be done too fast. We would argue, as do Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs in How College Works, that true learning depends on the cultivation of personal relationships. We would conclude, based on the evidence Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa assemble in Academically Adrift, that the best way to improve student success is to put students on campuses that set high expectations and emphasize the liberal arts and sciences. Maybe we would invoke the work of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham or biologist James E. Zull, who have explored why real learning is tough and takes trust and time. Perhaps we would even stand up for the humanistic and civic goals of liberal education.
In short, we would argue that all students deserve access to real campuses and professors. We would urge legislators to help all students, of any age or background, afford the time it takes to get a college education. We would note that this is particularly true for disadvantaged and first-generation students, who do not benefit from the kinds of reforms disruptors advocate, at least if we want to offer access to a meaningful education and not just to degrees.
Instead of making the case for what works, disruptors have lost faith that their colleges and universities can resist external forces of change. They thus seek to tear down the walls between the institution and the world, forgetting that those walls are not just problems but also solutions. By creating spaces for intellectual refuge and reflection, colleges and universities provide something rare and necessary for our society. Disruptors often portray themselves as heroic agents of change. In reality, they are giving in by giving up. To run from forces that seem too large to counter is human, but it should not be confused for fortitude nor moral courage.
These are hard times, no doubt, for higher education. Colleges and universities face many pressures. It will take a lot of strength to meet new needs and new environments without sacrificing the academy’s core principles and practices.
It will take some resistance, too. We must be sympathetic with administrators who are fearful of the future and feel powerless to change it. They, more than faculty members, must respond to legislators’ demands to offer more degrees cheaper and faster.
But those of us who -- as citizens, legislators, administrators, faculty members and students -- want to pass down the opportunities we have had to future students and professors, and who aspire to increase access to it for first-generation students, must have the courage of our convictions. We must remember what colleges and universities are for and ensure that those purposes are sustained, even as our institutions continue to evolve. In short, we must respond deliberatively, not out of fear that the world is moving too fast for thought.
Johann N. Neem, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, is a professor of history at Western Washington University. He is the author of “Experience Matters: Why Competency-Based Education Will Not Replace Seat Time.” His new book, Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America, will be published later this year by the Johns Hopkins University Press.
How can you as a senior administrator best handle situations in which you're caught between important constituencies with very conflicting demands? Barbara McFadden Allen, Robin Kaler and Ruth Watkins explore a hypothetical situation along those lines.
The same day Donald Trump assumed his office, another public official, in a college town two and a half hours southwest of Washington, D.C., confirmed plans to leave hers. University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan announced Jan. 20 that she will step down when her contract ends in summer 2018.
Sullivan’s tumultuous tenure as UVa’s first female president is worth reflecting on now, in the aftermath of nationwide women’s protests and the failed bid of our country’s first female presidential nominee from one of the two major parties. The difficulties Sullivan weathered during her presidency reveal much about prevalent attitudes toward female leadership -- and about how we pigeonhole and punish women with power.
Sullivan made national headlines in the summer of 2012 when she survived an attempt by university’s governing board to oust her. On June 10, 2012, Helen Dragas, then rector of the Board of Visitors, sent an email to the UVa community announcing Sullivan’s resignation. Dragas provided no stated rationale for the ouster, nor did she name a replacement. Two weeks of protest from faculty members, students and alumni followed. In the end, the board reinstated Sullivan as president, with Dragas joining the vote with an “unequivocal yes.”
Sullivan had arrived at UVa less than two years before the board tried to sack her. She was an outsider to the institution. Cerebral and reserved, not a Virginia native or an alumna of the university, she was the first woman to hold the presidency -- in all, a marked contrast to her predecessor, the charismatic John T. Casteen III, a Virginia native who held three degrees from UVa and served as president for 20 years.
UVa students and faculty sometimes mention Sullivan in the same breath as Elizabeth Warren. The two women, who differ greatly in public presentation and rhetorical style, were colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin and co-wrote two books on middle-class debt.
The more fitting analogy, however, may be between Sullivan and Hillary Clinton. The backlash against Clinton’s candidacy followed some of the patterns I observed in 2012 as an editor at UVa’s Cavalier Dailycovering the attempted removal of Sullivan. In Sullivan’s case, the same traits that allowed the sociologist to rise to power as an administrator -- her caution, her technocratic approach to leadership -- were qualities her adversaries on UVa’s governing board abruptly held up as weaknesses. The recoil against Clinton was more complex, but certain affinities between the two cases are worth examining.
Both Sullivan and Clinton are wonkish and guarded. They espouse a leadership style grounded in collaboration and analytical rigor rather than force of personality, as Sullivan confided about herself to Fortune magazine. Both faced claims that they lacked charisma, especially in comparison to their (male) predecessors. They are nearly the same age: Sullivan is 67; Clinton is 69. Their voices carry Arkansas inflections: Sullivan grew up in Little Rock, and Clinton lived in the state for nearly 20 years. They even favor a similar fashion aesthetic: the blue pantsuit.
A more telling resemblance, however, consists in how the governing board treated Sullivan during UVa’s leadership upheaval and how voters -- both Republicans and voters in the Democratic Party’s left wing -- regarded Clinton during her campaign. Both women were described, and dismissed, as incrementalists, even when such a characterization failed to align with the facts. The details of each backlash differ greatly, but a recognizable pattern of thought -- the drive to repudiate the incrementalist figure -- marks both cases. (That incrementalism is among the tamest of the charges that Republicans leveled against Clinton need not distract us from this observation.)
During the recent presidential campaign, pundits repeatedly cast Clinton as an incremental leader, juxtaposing her pragmatic approach against Bernie Sanders’s more idealistic vision and Trump’s bold, anarchic style. That framing made it easy to forget that Clinton was running on arguably the most progressive platform in American history, an agenda that included provisions for public child-care programs and tuition-free education at public colleges and universities for households earning up to $125,000.
Similarly, Sullivan was tagged as an incrementalist during the campus coup. Dragas, her most forceful opponent on UVa’s governing board, faulted the administrator for a culture of “incremental, marginal change.” This passivity was most evident, Dragas claimed, in Sullivan’s alleged failure to seize opportunities in online learning. The charge of incrementalism was captured in a piece of jargon that, for many observers, verified the view that the university’s leadership crisis was a clash between old-school academe and corporate-style governance: Sullivan, one of her critics suggested, lacked “strategic dynamism.”
Sullivan, in a move both diffident and perplexing, accepted this incrementalist label. “I have been described as an incrementalist,” she said in a speech on June 18, 2012, at the height of the governance crisis. “It is true … [but] being an incrementalist does not mean I lack vision.”
But how incrementalist is she? Sullivan’s stewardship has not radically transformed UVa. Yet it is not clear that she is any more incrementalist than leaders of UVa’s peer institutions or less “strategically dynamic” than UVa’s previous presidents whose tenures were of comparable length (such as Robert M. O’Neill, who served as president from 1985 to 1990). During her presidency, she worked to redesign the university’s internal budgeting scheme, opened a UVa office in Shanghai and added new majors and interdisciplinary research centers. By the time the board tried to unseat her, in part because of fears that UVa was moving too slowly on online education, the university had already begun talks with the online-education company Coursera.
Sullivan’s tenure has been marred by crises of unusual magnitude -- among them the murder of a student, the bloody arrest of a black student by white alcohol-enforcement agents, and a now-discredited Rolling Stone article alleging that a gang rape took place at a UVa fraternity. It is difficult to evaluate the full potential of a presidency so often mired in damage control.
I do not intend to act as Sullivan’s PR agent. But I do wish to question the assumption that her leadership has been atypically or problematically incrementalist. This same assumption, in a different but recognizable form, helped to dampen enthusiasm for Clinton’s candidacy. I leave aside the question of whether it’s bad to be an incremental leader -- although this matter, too, seems far from straightforward, when we weigh the relative harms of stewardship that is responsible but somewhat subservient to the status quo against disruption that might be either visionary or reckless.
Where does the “incrementalist” label come from, given the reach of each woman’s agenda? The accusation of incrementalism seems to respond, at least in part, to a certain tilt of personality, a certain way of proceeding in public life, rather than a set of administrative goals.
Sullivan and Clinton make evident some of the challenges that high-achieving women born in the middle of the 20th century continue to face. These are oft-embattled women who have smoothed their edges and lowered the pitch of their voices to make it in a man’s world, only to be rejected later for their alleged lack of effusive charm or progressivism. The caution and the box-checking diligence Sullivan and Clinton acquired in order to ascend the rungs of two competitive environments -- academic administration and politics -- emerge, in this entrepreneurial moment, as handicaps.
The backlash against Sullivan failed, and she regained her office. Clinton was not so fortunate.
This election has prompted us to reflect on what we can and should demand from women in positions of leadership. As Clinton moves on from her presidential bid and Sullivan prepares to leave her post, we need to think about what “incrementalism” might be code for.
Charlie Tyson is a doctoral student at Harvard University. He served as executive editor of the University of Virginia’s student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily.
Almost all colleges reflect the breadth of political opinion of the country as a whole, although not in the same proportion. While most are more liberal than their surrounding communities, they are far from politically homogeneous. For that reason, we as presidents have to be careful in how we present our personal political views.
To be sure, just as for the average citizen, we enjoy the right and privilege, under our Constitution, to speak our minds on any subject we wish. But with that freedom comes the responsibility to recognize that, however much we may want to speak only for ourselves, we nevertheless do so with the title “President” in front of our names -- which means our comments will be linked to our campus.
Most of us see ourselves as stewards of a sacred trust, upholding the traditional values of higher education -- which includes protecting every person on our campus from discrimination and arbitrary abrogation of rights and privileges. Understandably, we may meet threats to abridge such rights, even from the nation’s president in the absence of a clear and present showing of need, with reactions ranging from skepticism to studied opposition to outright rejection. For the most part, however, we should put our emotions aside and carefully consider how we should be reacting, especially in today’s divisive and rancorous political environment.
How should college presidents balance their personal views with the need to model best practices for our students?
Consider three recent events.
First, President Trump’s executive order that suspended travel of nationals of seven Muslim-majority nations. College presidents immediately responded. Many focused on reassuring the students and faculty members who were the targets of the executive order that they would be supported and protected by the campus to the best of its ability. My response was in that category: a statement of reassurance to the Roger Williams University campus that our commitment to religious freedom -- the hallmark of our namesake -- would be unflagging. I deliberately chose not to characterize the executive order itself.
But quite a few presidential comments were directed at the executive order, and, by extension, Trump, who, of course, promulgated it. Some presidents used particularly strong language: Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College in Minnesota, called the executive order “cowardly and cruel,” and he urged other college presidents to speak with “particular force” as they responded.
Second, the campus speaking tour of Milo Yiannopoulos, until recently an editor at the Breitbart alt-right news network. His remarks were so provocative that many of his appearances were picketed (University of Minnesota), interrupted (DePaul University), prematurely ended (University of California, Los Angeles), a cause of violence (University of Washington) or canceled (University of California, Berkeley). In the last situation, Nicholas Dirks, the Berkeley chancellor, explained his decision to cancel the Yiannopoulos speech in a letter to The New York Times, saying that he did so “reluctantly” and “only after determining that both the speaker’s and the public’s safety was highly endangered” -- citing concerns about “more than 100 armed people in masks and dark uniforms who used paramilitary tactics to engage in violent destructive behavior” coming from outside onto the campus. (Yiannopoulos, the Heritage Foundation and even Trump promptly issued news releases or tweets condemning the cancellation -- and Trump threatened to end all federal funding at Berkeley.)
Third, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway’s contention that statements by Trump that the news media have determined to be false are “alternative facts.” Conway’s characterization has invoked strong reactions throughout the country. President Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington University, for instance, publicly criticized in her president’s blog the part played by Conway, a Trinity alumna, in “facilitating the manipulation of facts” on behalf of Trump.
These three situations reflect different ways to deal with the emerging political agenda of the current administration. They also underscore the need for each of us as presidents to determine the approach that we think is best for our institution and our students.
For my part, I submit that this is a time to be moderate in our responses and to endeavor to create bridges across the widening chasm between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. In fact, if we college presidents cannot play or are unwilling to play this role, I despair for the future of our country.
For example, I see no advantage for college presidents to respond to initiatives such as Trump’s executive order regarding refugees with language that has the result of raising the temperature around the issue at hand. Words like “cruel” and “cowardly” are not said with an eye toward promoting a civil conversation -- and someone has to commit to civility if we are to avoid even greater polarization in our nation. Unilateral declarations by college presidents do very little to prompt a fruitful debate, let alone to change the minds of those on the other side of the matter.
Similarly, in my view, while McGuire was correct to challenge Conway’s casual use of “alternative facts,” she erred when she moved from fact to opinion: stating that such use is evidence of “a thinly veiled autocratic scheme” and that Trump’s executive order amounts to a “cruel and unreasonable war on immigrants.” In response to those comments, she received accolades from the left and brickbats from the right, but she changed no one’s mind (read the 100 comments posted in response to an Inside Higher Ed article on the topic). In such cases, an opportunity to spark a civil discussion is often lost, elbowed aside by the use of needlessly inflammatory language.
There is a real danger should presidents, as leaders of our campuses, speak out in judgmental terms about the wisdom of an administrative action, because we will be seen as effectively endeavoring to end the debate before it begins. Rather than creating the opportunity for students individually to listen to two sides of a matter and come to their own individual conclusions, we will be seen as deciding for the students and presenting the answer as a foregone conclusion.
The current moment presents a wonderful opportunity for presidents both to encourage the discussion of vitally important issues with their students, and to do so in a manner that reflects the civility of discourse we both honor and endeavor to instill in our students while they are part of our campus communities. For example, the executive order on immigration and the canceled speech at Berkeley are the type of events that, if managed well by college presidents, can be consequential in rebuilding community, both on campuses and nationally.
In response to the executive order on immigration, statements of concern, a recommitment to core values and expressions of support for those imperiled are all expected and appropriate. One method of modeling best practices for our students -- and allowing them to see the democratic process in action -- would be to create forums on campuses to discuss whether the current level of protection of our citizens from terrorist attacks is sufficient, and if not, what additional steps might be considered, weighing the balance between the degree to which safety would be enhanced versus the degree to which particular actions might actually increase the level of danger.
Reclaiming the Middle Ground
At a national meeting of academics in January, a much-discussed topic was the question of how higher education should act to rebuild the public’s trust in the work of our sector. One way to start might be to recognize that most of America has not ceded to academics the right to decide unilaterally on the wisdom or folly of particular political actions -- and we should stop acting as if they have.
We should remember that, in the days following the issuance of the executive order, a slight plurality of the American public approved of the president’s action, even though a majority of campus presidents who took a position on the matter opposed Trump’s executive order.
Moreover, the movement away from civil conversation has strengthened the hands of those who oppose the very notion of civility. The deliberately provocative words of alt-right spokesmen such as Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer are countered by the so-called black bloc -- the anarchists and anti-fascists who violently disrupted the scheduled Yiannopoulos speech at Berkeley. The alt-right movement provokes violent dissent, and the black bloc anarchists are only too happy to provide violent dissent. The alt-right then claims that government intervention is required to protect free speech, the anarchists celebrate the breakdown of civil order and universities become the unwitting foils in an attack on democratic principles.
If college campuses are being targeted as the battleground between extremists on the left and right, then college presidents have to find ways to reclaim the middle ground. This starts with conversations between the institution’s administration and campus political groups and the creation of forums for debate between representative voices from left and right. A true debate, where students are invited to witness a meaningful presentation of opposing views, is far more interesting and useful than one-sided diatribes.
And, ultimately, that begins with college presidents deciding to use controversial issues as learning moments for our students -- not soapboxes from which we can proclaim our personal opinions.
Donald J. Farish is president of Roger Williams University.