The University of Virginia’s big problem

University of Virginia’s provost, John D. Simon, wrote an open letter responding to action by an accrediting body placing U-Va., on “warning” because of this past summer’s 18-day leadership debacle. It said in part:

The University of Virginia acknowledges the decision of the Board of Trustees of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).  While the decision is disappointing, the University of Virginia pledges to work diligently to address the concerns cited by the commission.  For the past several months and in the spirit of continuous improvement, the Board of Visitors and University leadership have been proactively working together to review governance practices and policies to ensure the highest level of transparency, accountability and responsiveness to all those it serves. 

 

Unfortunately, the board can’t work out the problem because the board, or at least the leadership, is the problem. Led by Rector Helen Dragas, the board thrust the elite school into turmoil this past summer by first forcing out President Teresa Sullivan without giving an adequate explanation and then reinstating her after a campus revolt.

The accrediting body announced this week that the university was not in compliance in two of three allegations relating to the leadership crisis: those concerning faculty involvement and following governance requirements in regard to the leadership crisis. In October, the commission had put the school on notice, saying it was not satisfied with its explanation for how and why it forced Sullivan out in the first place.

In fact, few people in the U-Va. community believe the trustees have explained what was really behind the episode — and that is unacceptable nearly six months after the start of the debacle.

Dragas — who was inexplicably reinstated to the board by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell at the end of June and stayed on as rector — and her supporters have indicated that they sought to remove Sullivan because they thought she was an incrementalist at a time when the university needed a bold leader who would make rapid technological advances and watch  the fiscal bottom line more closely. Critics don’t believe that was the real or only motivation.

The accrediting body isn’t satisfied, either. It raises the question as to why Virginia’s governor is.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 13, 2012