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The Gender of Incremental Leadership

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan and U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have a similar leadership style, writes Charlie Tyson, and public reaction to it says a good deal about how our society pigeonholes women with power.

March 6, 2017
 
 

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 Daily covering 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.

Bio

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.

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