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Posted at 01:36 PM ET, 06/22/2012

U-Va: The irony in the ‘evidence’ against Sullivan

The debacle over the ousting of the University of Virginia president has now moved from shocking to ridiculous with the release of a statement by the head of the school’s governing board, that was meant to explain why she moved secretly against Teresa Sullivan.

There is no smoking gun in the “evidence” — at least not in regard to Sullivan.


Helen E. Dragas (Mark Gormus/AP)
Rather, while the reasons that Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas provided for forcing Sullivan to resign tell us virtually nothing about Sullivan’s performance during her two years on the job, they do shed light on the sorry leadership of the governing board.

As this drama nears the end of its second week — Sullivan announced on June 10 that she would leave her job Aug. 15 — there seems to be a growing likelihood that she could be reinstituted by the board next week because of the popular backlash against the firing.

Carl Zeithaml, the dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, who was tapped to take over as interim president, said he doesn’t want to prepare for the job until Sullivan’s situation is definitively resolved, my colleagues Anita Kumar and Daniel de Vise reported in this story.

Even if Sullivan is reinstated, problems will remain — on the board itself. Dragas herself admits it in a statement rich in irony.

The bulk of the Dragas June 21 statement (the full text of which is at the end of this post) is devoted to laying out 10 specific concerns the board has about the state of the university. Dragas also apologized for the way the Sullivan ouster was handled. It was lousy, she conceded, but she didn’t explain why we should trust her judgment about Sullivan when Dragas couldn’t figure out how to properly fire the president.

The 10 concerns — including funding challenges and supposedly slow technology integration — are not unique to the University of Virginia, and, all have their origins in the years well before Sullivan became president.

Though there was little new in the Dragas statement — the “concerns” had by and large been revealed by reporters — they do show her zeal for running the school like a business.

This is a bad idea that is now all the rage in K-12 school reform and that is informing decisions about higher education too. The instability and focus on the bottom line — money — that come with running a business are not well suited for civic institutions, such as public schools.

Sullivan may have been a great president or she may have been a bad president, but you wouldn’t know from Dragas’s statement. It doesn’t say how Sullivan did or didn’t address any of these issues; Dragas doesn’t mention the president by name.

But she does say this about how the board sought a successor to long-time leader John Casteen III a few years back:

At the time of President Casteen’s retirement, the search process should have included a thoughtful assessment by uninvested third parties who, in collaboration with the institution’s stakeholders, would have examined everything from academic programs, faculty assignments, student services, research activity, technology, tuition and admissions strategies, administrative expenditures, public service and outreach, private support, the Medical School and hospital, and, yes, governance, both at the administrative and board levels.

This is a slam at the board’s leadership before her — she was appointed to the panel in 2008 by then governor Tim Kaine, was named vice rector in 2010, and last year became U-Va.’s first female rector. Of course, she was on the board at the time of the search for Casteen’s replacement — and if she was so concerned about the process, she could have gone public.

There is rich irony in her saying that the search process should have been done “in collaboration with the institution's stakeholders.” She didn’t talk to any of them — not to the faculty, not to the students, and, apparently, not even to all of the members of the Board of Visitors as she went about secretly lining up votes to get rid of Sullivan.

One of the 10 concerns involves a “proactive, contemporary communications function” that can “tell the UVA story.” Since the university has long been considered one of the most prestigious public universities in the country, I’d say the school’s story has gotten out pretty well over the years.

(Who she did talk to about her stealth campaign against Sullivan is somewhat revealing: Big donors. Two of the people she let in on her secret were billionaire Paul Tudor Jones II, who donated $35 million to the school to build a basketball arena, and Peter Kiernan, who recently gave up his post as chairman of the Darden School Foundation, which is the chief fundraising entity for the highly ranked graduate program in business. Kiernan had advance knowledge of the Dragas campaign against Sullivan but told The Greenwich Times that he had no role. Jones wrote an op-ed in the Charlottesville Daily Progress defending the removal, invoking “the spirit of Thomas Jefferson.”)

Dragas invoked the name of Jefferson, the school's genius founder, twice in her statement. If this was an attempt to somehow link her cause with his, it didn’t work. Jefferson certain believed in revolution, as Jones noted in his op-ed, but he also kept his faith in educated people. If Dragas had bothered to listen, the people — the faculty and students, who are the heart of the university — have in fact spoken.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Dragas acted in a way that seems inimical to an academic institution. There is little educational experience among the members of the Board of Visitors, all political appointees. Half of the 16 voting members of the board were appointed by the current governor, Republican Bob McDonnell, and the other half were appointed by Kaine, his Democratic predecessor.

Casteen himself was quoted by the Huffington Post as saying that political contributions to sitting governors have in recent years become “more important factors in the selection of our board members.”

You don’t need to be a Jefferson scholar to know that that isn’t the way he would have wanted the school to be run.

Statement of Helen E. Dragas

Rector, University of Virginia

June 21, 2012

In my statement to the Board on Monday, I conveyed my heartfelt apologies for the pain, anger and confusion that has swept the Grounds over the last 10 days, and said that the UVA family deserved better from your Board.

I also indicated that this University was entitled to a fuller explanation of the Board’s thinking for collectively taking the action that we did, and explained that, as Visitors, we have the very highest aspirations for the University of Virginia -- for it to reach its fullest potential as a 21st century Academical Village, always rooted firmly in our enduring values of honor, integrity and trust -- and that we want the University to be a leader in fulfilling its mission, not a follower.

Although I was reluctant to go into detail on our concerns, as I said, we owe you a more specific outline of the serious strategic challenges that alarmed us about the direction of the University. No matter how you feel about our actions, these challenges represent some very high hurdles that stand in the way of our University’s path to continued success in the coming decade, and they are going to remain front and center for the next Board and the next President over the coming years. Simply put, the UVA family must be clear-eyed about the shoals and dangers that exist below the surface, and the hard work and strategic planning it will take for this community to navigate them together.

While the UVA student experience remains premiere, though our faculty creates dynamic new knowledge every day, and despite the enduring magic of Mr. Jefferson’s University, the bottom line is the days of incremental decision-making in higher education are over, or should be. For some time, the Board of Visitors has been concerned about the following difficult challenges facing the University – most of which are not unique to UVA -- and we concluded that their structural and long-term nature demanded a deliberate and strategic approach, not an incremental one.

1. State and federal funding challenges – Since 2000, state funding per student has declined from $15,300 to $8,300 per student in constant dollars. Governor McDonnell has done much to restore stability to state funding, but the outlook for economic growth in this area over the long term is bleak. Federal research funding and federal support of student loans are both in decline, with no expectation of a recovery, putting pressure on the University to replace these revenue sources with sustainable alternatives. The University has no long-range plan to do so.

2. The changing role of technology in adding value to the reach and quality of the educational experience of our students. Bold experimentation and advances by the distinguished likes of Stanford, Harvard, and MIT have brought online learning into the mainstream, virtually overnight. Stanford’s president, John Hennessy, predicted that “there’s a tsunami coming”, based on the response to online course offerings at Stanford (one course enrolled an astounding 160,000 students). Michigan, Penn, Princeton, Yale, and Carnegie Mellon are all taking aggressive steps in this direction. The University of Virginia has no centralized approach to dealing with this potentially transformational development.

3. A dynamic and rapidly changing health care environment. The UVA Medical Center,while excelling at cutting edge patient care and research, competes with competent and sophisticated private health systems providing high quality health care in a market undergoing substantive structural change. At the behest of the Board of Visitors, the Medical Center undertook a strategic planning study in 2011 that resulted in a well articulated plan. Implementation will require strong leadership and very ambitious interim steps.

4. Heightened pressure for prioritization of scarce resources. Difficult choices will have to be made to balance competing demands for financial aid (the University’s generous, $95 million per year financial aid program, AccessUVA, has consumed resources at an unsustainable and alarming rate over the last five years, yet it is considered necessary to compete with many elite private institutions in attracting the best and the brightest students) and faculty and staff recruitment, and retention. A wave of faculty retirements is coming over the next seven years, and faculty retention is increasingly difficult due to stagnation in faculty salaries. The College of Arts and Sciences alone estimates it would take $130 million by 2016 to provide competitive compensation and start-up costs to fulfill its aspirations in the humanities and the sciences. Yet, the University has no articulated long-range plan that prioritizes these competing demands for resources.

5. Issues of faculty workload and the quality of the student experience. The ratio of students to faculty is deteriorating. This change has not occurred as a part of a thoughtful process and planned strategy to integrate technology into introductory courses while extending important small group and individual interactions between faculty and students. Rather, it reflects the stresses of increased enrollment and insufficient resource prioritization.

6. Issues of declining relative faculty compensation. In a letter dated May 11, 2012, the College of Arts and Sciences faculty issued a letter to the Board almost identical to one it issued to the Presidential search committee in 2009. It demanded urgency in addressing the decline of UVA in faculty compensation from 26th to 36th since 2005 among Association of American University peers, and noted our relatively poor performance vis-à-vis key public competitors such as UCLA, Berkeley, Michigan, and UNC.

7. Drifting engagement direction – The securing of philanthropic gifts and grants from a broader base of supporters is critically important as our devoted volunteer leadership attempts to finish the UVA capital campaign. Large gifts received over the last year include much appreciated, donor-driven funds for international squash courts and contemplative sciences (the confluence of Eastern thought, yoga, meditation, etc.).

Central institutional priorities should be articulated and highlighted for engagement, but cannot be without development of a specific vision and plan.

8. Research funding and activity – Research funding has been in decline, and we have decreased in federal higher education research rankings in the past five years. In 2008, we were #70 in the nation overall (compared to Virginia Tech’s #43 ranking). These statistics are incongruous with other characteristics of the University that suggest we should be a research powerhouse. Mr. Jefferson’s vision for his University and his early encouragement of the sciences suggests the same. In areas of applied research, UVA often is not the first institution in Virginia that governmental units and businesses go to when they need a partner.

9. Increasing accountability for academic quality and productivity. These issues are foremost on the minds of students, family, and legislators. The Board well understands that curricular programming is the responsibility of the faculty, and the Board has never suggested any specific curricular adjustments. It is the Board’s responsibility, however, to ask for evidence that the current curriculum is meeting its stated goals and also to ask how well any particular curriculum or program actually prepares UVA graduates for the increasingly complex, international world in which they will live and compete. There is no long-term program in place for assessment, reporting, and improvement in many disciplines.

10. Increasing importance of a proactive, contemporary communications function. The recent events unfolding at UVA have proven a demonstrated need to fortify university communications functions with updated technologies. We need faster, multi-platform communications including cutting-edge use of mobile, digital and social media to complement a more traditional media-relations function and press outreach to tell the UVA story.

This is but a partial list. Put together, these challenges represent an extremely steep climb, even if the University were lean and on top of its game. Yet in the face of these challenges, the University still lacks an updated strategic plan.

Believe it or not, the last time the University developed a concrete, strategic plan was a decade ago – in 2002. We deserve better – the rapid development of a plan that includes goals, costs, sources of funds, timelines and individual accountability. And, without micromanaging details such as calling for the elimination of specific programs or mandating distance learning, the Board did insist, and still insists, that the University leadership move in a timely, thoughtful, and organized fashion to address these and similar issues. Failing this, the University of Virginia will continue to drift in yesterday.

At the time of President Casteen’s retirement, the search process should have included a thoughtful assessment by uninvested third parties who, in collaboration with the institution’s stakeholders, would have examined everything from academic programs, faculty assignments, student services, research activity, technology, tuition and admissions strategies, administrative expenditures, public service and outreach, private support, the Medical School and hospital, and, yes, governance, both at the administrative and board levels.

With this said, I agree with critics who say that we should have handled the situation better. In my view, we did the right thing, the wrong way. For this, I sincerely apologize, and this and future boards will learn from our mistakes. However, as much as our action to effect a change in leadership has created a wave of controversy, it was motivated by an understanding of the very stiff headwinds we face as a University, and our resolve to push through them to forge a future that is even brighter than imaginable today.

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