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Posted at 10:55 AM ET, 07/15/2012

Why U-Va.’s governing board should go

There’s a charade playing out right now at the University of Virginia — and it’s not a game.

It’s the batty pretense that President Teresa Sullivan can and should be able to work well with people on the governing board who orchestrated her ouster — or acquiesced in it — but then reinstated her when the school community revolted. That Sullivan should be forced into a “healing” process with people who deceived her and lied to her — and who still won’t tell the public what really happened. That there isn’t a better way to end this episode.

The better though more difficult way would be for those members of the board who helped cause the disaster, or who stood idly by during it, to finally tell the public the truth and then leave the premises. A new board should be created with representatives from the various university constituencies.

This could serve as a lesson to those members of the Penn State Board of Trustees whose inaction helped contribute to the Sandusky disaster but who still think they have a right to keep running that school.


University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas, left, and President Teresa Sullivan. (Norm Shafer - FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

My colleague Daniel DeVise just wrote that leaders at U-Va. are making every effort to move ahead. Sullivan herself even used a Marine Corps phrase in saying that the firing-reinstating episode was an “opportunity disguised as a disaster.”

She has to say that. She may even really mean it. The fact is that the crisis was a disaster undisguised as a disaster.

And now we are witnessing the common aftermath when a school is plunged into turmoil: Everybody declares it is time for healing and says something about how the trouble was a useful catharsis. But for real healing, a wound has to be cleansed and disinfected. What we’ve got now is phony healing.

For those who inexplicably missed the events of the last month or are currently obsessed with the failings of the leadership of Penn State, the far-fetched story goes like this:

One day in June Helen Dragas, the head of the governing Board of Visitors of U-Va., told Sullivan that she had to quit after less than two years on the job. Dragas claimed there was overwhelming board support for her view. Sullivan had no idea the board was dissatisfied with her; nobody had told her. There was an uprising of students, faculty and alumni who liked the job Sullivan was doing.

Under the weight of the backlash as well as a threat by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell to fire the board if it didn’t reach a conclusion to the debacle, Sullivan was reinstated 18 days after being told to take a hike. This doesn’t mean McDonnell (R) would necessarily have minded if Sullivan had been fired. He was told about Dragas’s intent to fire Sullivan before Sullivan herself knew about it, and he didn’t issue any threat then.

But there are plenty of things we still do not know, and the fact that we don’t is a big part of why the board needs to change. It created an unnecessary and harmful crisis at the university, and still, today, it has refused to tell the public what really happened. No board member has come out to repudiate Dragas for staging the disaster. Courage, anyone?

What were the real motives behind the disaster? We still don’t know. Dragas eventually said Sullivan was an incremental leader with no strategic vision for the 21st century university. In fact, Sullivan had given the board a strategic plan that nobody complained about. One of the reasons given, that she was behind in pushing online education, was thoroughly demolished in this post by University of Virginia Psychology Professor Daniel Willingham.

Once, when Sullivan appeared at an official school gathering in casual clothes, Dragas later told her to be mindful of how she dressed, according to a person with knowledge of the incident. That speaks volumes about how Dragas viewed Sullivan.

Dragas did not return emails that I sent in an attempt to discuss the U-Va. leadership crisis with her.

Why did Dragas say it was urgent that Sullivan be fired in June? Dragas said it was for the good of the university. Was it just coincidence that the board composition was changing on July 1, with some members leaving and newly appointed members coming on? And that Dragas’s own term was ending and the only way for her to stay on the board was if McDonnell reappointed her?

Did Dragas lie to board members? Some of them are saying that now, but we still don’t really know. One quietly told select people on campus that Dragas said Sullivan wanted to resign because she realized her presidency had failed. Another said Dragas told them Sullivan had no support on campus and firing her would be simple. What we do know is that there was never a full vote of the board to fire Sullivan — and that no board member has yet bothered to tell the public what really happened at the public university.

At the Board of Visitors meeting in which Sullivan was reinstated, member Heywood Fralin, who offered the motion to reinstate, said that he had “never been presented with facts that in my opinion justify asking for the resignation of President Sullivan.” He also said that he could have avoided the crisis by being proactive earlier. He also said:

“I was not clever enough at the time to confer with other members to determine if three would be willing to call a special meeting of the Board of Visitors to discuss such action. I am confident there would have been three willing members and that if such a meeting had been called, a vigorous discussion would have ensued, and no one knows what the vote would have been. I apologize to the University community including all Board members that I didn’t think of this solution sooner. It would have avoided this crisis.”

It’s well and good that he recognized he could have done something. But that’s just a historical footnote now. Fralin is no longer on the board. We have no assurances that other Sullivan supporters on the board who were present when Dragas moved against the president will be any less supine in the future. As Fralin made clear, even Sullivan supporters on the board did not do their jobs.

Who lied directly to Sullivan and who lied by omission? The easier question to answer might be: Who didn’t?

Why did McDonnell, a Republican who talks about responsibility, reappoint Dragas, the woman behind the disaster at one of the country’s finest higher education institutions? She was actually appointed to the board by his Democratic predecessor, Tim Kaine. But the values she projected about running the school more like a business would be in line with McDonnell’s philosophy. He boxed himself in when he demanded that the board resolve the crisis, then “act as a unified board when your deliberations are done.” Perhaps he wrote this with the full intention of keeping Dragas on board to push for the kinds of changes she wanted.

After all, Dragas has never publicly said it was wrong to try to get rid of Sullivan. She has only apologized for the way she did it. Why would anybody expect Sullivan to trust anything this woman says to her — or for that matter what anybody on the board says to her?

Dragas and her allies in the endeavored to fire Sullivan because they wanted the school to run more like a business. They certainly carried out their attempt to get rid of Sullivan in a secretive way that has the hallmarks of bad business practice.

The next time the full Board of Visitors will meet is at their August 15-16 retreat to pick its new leaders. (Incidentally, last year’s retreat was held at a boutique hotel in Alexandria that cost some $30,000 for no more than three days. This year’s retreat promises to be less lush; it is being held in Richmond, and McDonnell is planning to address the crew.)

The University of Virginia can set a fine precedent here.

First, the board members who created an unnecessary and harmful crisis — or who simply failed to take any action to stop it from occurring — should finally come clean and tell us what really happened.

Here are their names, and when their terms will expire: Dragas, the board rector (July 2016); A. Macdonald Caputo (July 2013); Hunter E. Craig (July 2014); Alan A. Diamonstein (July 2013); Allison Cryor DiNardo (July 2015); Marvin W. Gilliam Jr. (July 2014); Randal J. Kirk (July 2013); Stephen P. Long (July 2015); Vincent J. Mastracco Jr. (July 2013); John L. Nau III (July 2015); and Timothy B. Robertson (July 2014).

The four people who are just starting this month as full voting members of the board — Frank B. Atkinson, Victoria D. Harker, Bobbie G. Kilberg and Edward D. Miller — should take to heart what all the secrecy did for the school.

Second, the board should launch an independent inquiry into what really happened.

Third, a new board structure, more attuned to the university’s needs, should be created. The governor shouldn’t appoint every single member of the board. Students, faculty and alumni can elect their own representatives--with full voting powers on the board. This, of course, is no guarantee of avoiding another board-created disaster, but it certainly would help mitigate against one.

And finally, the trustees who created, abetted or tolerated the mess should leave. A precedent was set when Vice Rector Mark Kington, who played a leading role in Sullivan’s ouster, resigned on June 19 and in a letter to McDonnell, recognized that it was “the right thing to do” so the university could really heal.

This could start a new wave of real accountability in higher education. Maybe even the clueless trustees of Penn State who were running the school during the Gerald Sandusky disaster will get the message: They helped create a criminal mess. They should leave and let more competent trustees take over.

Taking personal responsibility. No, it’s not just for the poor. It’s also for the wealthy and powerful. What a concept.

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By  |  10:55 AM ET, 07/15/2012

 
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