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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 06/26/2012

U-Va.: What the showdown will — and won’t — resolve

There is much hope on the University of Virginia campus that the painful and unnecessary two-week drama over the surprise ouster of the popular president, Teresa Sullivan, will end Tuesday with her reinstatement.

Every major constituency in the university community has backed her and professors have been talking about “when” she gets her job back
Rally in support of Teresa Sullivan at U-Va., on Sunday. (Jay Paul for The Washington Post)
rather than “if.”

Reinstatement could happen when the Board of Visitors meets Tuesday, under a threat from Gov. Bob McDonnell that panel members will be dismissed if they don’t resolve Sullivan’s status right away and — come to a “unified” decision. That may well be impossible — at least not without some resignations.

But even if unity is achieved, it won’t really end this unnecessary episode, which started on June 10 when Sullivan announced she was being forced to resign after the governing board’s head, homebuilder Helen Dragas, led a secret campaign to force her out.

What’s more, the management philosophy that led to Sullivan’s forced resignation — which, at its heart, is about running public schools as if they were businesses — is on the ascent in education. K-12 school districts have been dealing with it for years, and it has moved into the higher education arena. Other public schools, colleges and universities should get ready.

Dragas has said she believes Sullivan was not a bold enough leader for these troubled times, but Dragas failed to make a case that won over many students, faculty, administrators and alumni. In fact, she failed to include key university constituencies in her deliberations (although some super-wealthy donors knew) and then, once the cat was out of the bag, failed to make a public case about her actions at all until protests forced her hand.

Importantly, even in the face of huge opposition and even ridicule, Dragas has conceded only that the way she forced out Sullivan was the problem, not the act itself. What is the likelihood that she will go into Tuesday’s meeting with a complete change of heart?

Given that the governor has insisted on a “unified” decision on Sullivan’s fate, and given that the board members are said to be divided at the moment, the Tuesday meeting could well be contentious, and end with some board members resigning.

When Sullivan was initially asked by supporters if she would agree to reclaim her job if asked, she said she would if Dragas resigned. My colleague Anita Kumar wrote in this story that on Monday, Sullivan had backed off an insistence on specific conditions for her return, suggesting that it is possible that both she and Dragas will be forced to continue working together.

The most optimistic among us might think that the push and pull between them could send up serving the university well, and that each could draw out the best from the other.

The rest of us will worry that the head of the governing board not only plunged the school into this ridiculous drama, but that she views public institutions in corporate terms. This is a philosophy she is not likely to change, but, rather, continue to push on the school.

Schools aren’t businesses; they shouldn’t be measured in terms of dollars earned but rather in lives saved through education. The nature of business is for constant change; some school reformers may think that is the way to the future, but, in fact, children need stability and not unceasing turmoil.

Even if Dragas leaves and Sullivan returns, the president would be forced to get along with people who agreed to oust her in secret — not the healthiest of work environments.

What the school really needs is a board that understands not only its challenges in a new era but its enormous virtues and how to ensure that the latter doesn’t get lost in the need to address the former. It doesn’t have that now — and that’s why Tuesday’s meeting will only be the start of a new chapter in this drama.

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By  |  05:00 AM ET, 06/26/2012

 
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