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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 06/12/2012

U-Va. board: Tell us why you pushed out president

The University of Virginia’s governing board seems to have gone out of its way to avoid explaining directly to the public why it pushed out the popular President Teresa Sullivan after only two years. It’s time it says exactly what happened. Now.


UVA President Teresa Sullivan, right, smiles at Katie Couric at commencement exercises last month (Sabrina Schaeffer/AP)
If you haven’t followed the story, it goes like this: The Board of Visitors that governs the elite public university shocked the school community on Sunday by announcing that it had asked Sullivan to resign. The board discussed the issue for months in secret, without telling Sullivan her job was in jeopardy, and the decision has sparked a great deal of anger in the UVA community, my colleagues Anita Kumar and Daniel de Vise reported in this story.

A statement released by the head of the board, Rector Helen E. Dragas, said the school needed “a bold leader who can help develop, articulate and implement” rather than “incremental, marginal change.” She was quoted by Kumar and de Vise as saying that political considerations were not involved in the decision.

How are we supposed to know if the board doesn’t explain exactly what Sullivan didn’t do that it wanted her to do, and exactly what she did do that wasn’t good enough for them.

It was the board, after all, that hired Sullivan in 2010. She will have the shortest tenure of any president in U-Va. history when she steps down on Aug. 15.

(Incidentally, half of the 16 voting members of the governing board was appointed by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and the other half were named by the Democratic governor who served before him, Timothy Kaine. The decision on Sullivan was said to be unanimous.)

There is too much secrecy around personnel decisions involving schools at every level. Administrators always rest on the excuse that they can’t discuss personnel decisions, but that is too easy. While there are legitimate reasons for keeping some aspects of personnel decisions secret, that can’t always be the case. The public has a right to know why key personnel decisions are made about public institutions.

My colleague Bill Turque wrote in this post in his D.C. Schools insider blog about how the community at the new Phelps Architectural, Construction and Engineering High School in Northeast became angry when its founding principal, the respected Michael Johnson, was removed by the administration of schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson without a public explanation.

“You have a process with zero transparency,” parent Ricardo Brooks was quoted as saying by Turque. “No matter how I slice it, as a business person, as a political junkie, it just doesn’t make sense.”

At the University of Virginia, it’s just not good enough for the decision makers to tell us that they and Sullivan had different visions for the future of the school and to suggest that she wasn’t bold enough. Sullivan herself is not allowed to talk about her resignation, Kumar and de Vise reported. Why would the board insist on that?

The damage to the flagship public university in Virginia, a school with such a fine reputation that it is considered a public “Ivy,” will be real and perhaps long-lasting if the governing board doesn’t make it clearer what is really going on.

The time for board officials to do this was well before the announcement of Sullivan’s ousting was made, but now is the right time for them to start to make amends. Anything short of full disclosure will leave a vacuum of accurate information that will surely be filled up with gossip and innuendo. That’s no way to run a university.

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