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Posted at 09:59 AM ET, 06/26/2012

U-Va.: When the governing board got it right

This is a speech given by University of Virginia Assistant Professor Peter Norton on behalf of the Faculty Senate at a weekend rally in support of ousted President Teresa Sullivan.

The university’s Board of Visitors is meeting this afternoon to consider giving Sullivan her job back after a huge backlash against her ouster. This speech is a critique of the board’s action and spells out a case for Sullivan’s reinstatement.

Address to the Rally for Honor

University of Virginia

June 24, 2012

Peter Norton

Faculty Senate

We come from many perspectives but we’re here to stand up for one shared value: honor.

I thank the organizers of the Rally for Honor, in particular Suzie McCarthy and Anastasia Dakouri-Hild. And thanks to every single person here, physically or remotely, for making this happen.


Faces of students and faculty who could not attend were stuck on sticks during a rally in support of ousted University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. (Andrew Shurtleff/AP)
I’m here at their invitation to represent the Faculty Senate—and, by extension, the faculty of our University. The Faculty Senate supports the positive message of the organizers of the Rally for Honor.

I want to thank the leadership of the Faculty Senate: George Cohen, Chris Holstege, Bob Kemp, and Gweneth West—who have shown by example how to guide chaotic but positive energy into constructive and effective channels. I also thank all my colleagues on the Faculty Senate. Two weeks ago, many of them were only familiar faces—and now many of them are dear friends.

Though I’m here to represent the Faculty Senate, and to express our solidarity with the organizers of the Rally for Honor, I find that since June 10 the distinctions between the populations that compose our university have become insignificant. The faculty, the students, the staff, the alumni and the friends of our university have come together in a common cause.

Our energy is awesome and positive. Following the reinstatement of President Sullivan on Tuesday, that powerful energy will guide our university through the rapidly changing environment of higher education. The Board, if it chooses well on Tuesday, will be amazed by the productive and positive energy we have to offer.

Civility and collegial dialogue

“As I’ve crossed these grounds … I’ve been struck by how their beauty and openness contribute to an atmosphere of civility in which collegial dialogue can thrive.”

Those were not my words. I’ve quoted them. I predict you’ll hear Jefferson quoted more than once this afternoon. So I wanted to quote the words of our president, Dr. Teresa A. Sullivan. It will surprise no one here that in her inaugural address, delivered in the Dome Room behind me on January 11, 2010, President Sullivan spoke wisely about civility and collegial dialogue. These values seem to guide her conduct at every meeting she attends, and in every speech she gives. Most presidents are good speakers—but we are blessed with a president who is also an exemplary listener.

In the last two weeks, however, we have seen failures of civility and collegial dialogue. The first was the failure by those interested in a new direction for our university to engage the president in collegial dialogue about their vision. The advocates of this vision, to their credit, have admitted this failure. And since then there have been failures of civility on both sides of this matter.

But these failures are as nothing compared to the awesome collegial dialogue we have witnessed and participated in on these grounds since June 10. Today’s rally is yet one more instance. And much of the credit for this civil and collegial dialogue is due to President Sullivan. President Sullivan, through the Day of Dialogue, Respect@UVa, and other bold, unprecedented and non-incremental initiatives, has fostered a culture of civility that is a model for universities nationwide.

Some say our reputation has been damaged. And perhaps in some ways it has. But I’m sure you’ve noticed that since June 10 we’ve been building a national reputation as a university community that is more actively committed to each other and to excellence in higher education than any other university in the world.

Incrementalism and bold visions

Some people suppose that bold visions and incremental planning are incompatible. President Sullivan’s record proves the contrary. Bold visions succeed when they’re founded upon careful incremental work.

Incrementalism is a new catchword for an old virtue—one of the four cardinal virtues we’ve inherited from Ancient Greece. It’s called prudence. Some people confuse prudence with timidity. But philosophers say that prudence is the optimum point on the continuum of courage, between timidity and recklessness. In an environment of rapid change, we need a prudent leader to guide us. We are fortunate to have such a leader in President Sullivan.

President Sullivan was a bold visionary to start the Day of Dialogue. It took a bold visionary to start Respect@UVa. It took a bold visionary to lift the curtain on our university’s finances so that taxpayers of the Commonwealth can see where the money goes and so that we can find and eliminate inefficiencies. It took a bold visionary to demand that the faculty become entrepreneurs who take responsibility for the financial health of our university.

Any successful researcher will tell you that their boldest accomplishments were built upon a solid foundation of hard incremental work.

Set loose from the foundation of patient incremental effort, bold visions become dangerous. A case in point might be the plan to dismiss the president, which appears to have been based upon insufficient incremental work. Those who devised this plan would presumably be the first to agree. But to be fair to them, they are in good company.

Many others have made the same mistakes. They supposed that incremental effort and bold action are incompatible, and then failed to build bold action on incremental work. There was very bold action at Enron — at Arthur Andersen — and at Bear Stearns. Does anyone remember the Edsel? If you need to check Wikipedia, it’s E-D-S-E-L. With bold action unguided by incremental effort, we risk becoming the Enron higher education, or the manufacturer of academic Edsels.

Incrementalism does not preclude bold action — to the contrary, it is the prerequisite to successful bold action. The Apollo 11 astronauts spent less than three hours walking on the moon. When NASA was founded in 1958, such a walk was surely the very boldest of visions. The astronauts’ brief visit eleven years later — and Apollo’s extraordinary and bold success — was the product of a decade of patient work by tens of thousands of unsung incrementalists—many of them in universities led by presidents who appreciated what their incrementalist researchers had to offer. They provided a sure foundation for the bold visionaries these universities also house, then and today.

Process and result

So our university’s community of renowned researchers—faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates—can offer some advice earned through training and experience.

Recently we have heard the contention that while the process was admittedly flawed, its result was correct. To quote: “we did the right thing, the wrong way.”

Our researchers would respectfully suggest: process and result cannot be dissociated. If the process is deficient, the result is unreliable.

Researchers report their methods carefully, because a bad process will yield an unreliable result. When this happens, good researchers will not proceed. They will not say, “we got the right results the wrong way.” They begin again.

So if, in fact, flawed methods culminated in the conclusion that our president should resign, we suggest that the conclusion is unreliable. It needs validation through better methods. To those who see our president as a barrier to our university’s best future, we ask: Make the case. Begin again. And in the meantime, please reach no premature conclusions.

Indispensable to the research process is the quality control mechanism. We call it peer review. Sound peer review by outside experts is never a challenge to the researcher’s authority. It is a formal consultation method that prevents errors, promotes reliable work, and gives results credibility. Good researchers do not see peer reviewers as a threat or an obstacle, but as their best ally—because they catch the flaws the researcher has missed before they are published. If, as everyone agrees, the process culminating in the president’s resignation was flawed, let me suggest that the absence of peer review was the flaw that enabled all other flaws. We the faculty offer our services as peer reviewers in a common effort with the Board of Visitors to serve our university.

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There are fair questions to be asked about where the line lies between absolute authority by the Board of Visitors and shared governance with the faculty, students, staff and alumni. This debate has been oversimplified on both sides. No matter what happens on Tuesday, we need a rational discussion on these questions with all concerned. But today our message is different.

Today we’re here to tell the Board of Visitors that they got it right. On January 11, 2010, the Board of Visitors unanimously elected Dr. Teresa A. Sullivan the eighth president of our University. The following two years has demonstrated the wisdom of their judgment. The proof lies among you, in the unwavering support you and thousand of others have given her. The Board of Visitors has the opportunity now to prove that it was right in 2010. It can make allies out of thousands of dedicated champions of our university. We thank the board for that wise decision, and we ask them to stand by it by reinstating President Sullivan.

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