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Campus Overload
Posted at 08:23 PM ET, 09/21/2012

U-Va. board to accreditors: “There is no more explanation to give.”


The events of the summer leadership crisis at the University of Virginia — when the governing board asked the president to resign, then changed its mind and reinstated her — prompted some probing questions from its accrediting agency.

The day before U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan regained her job, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) sent a letter to the university raising concerns about the president’s dismissal and questioning the school’s compliance in three areas: integrity, governing board control, and the faculty role in governance. U-Va. originally had until July 31 to respond, but that deadline was extended to Friday.

In a response dated Thursday, the U-Va. Board of Visitors states that while the process of ousting and reinstating Sullivan “was flawed”and that “constituencies felt excluded,” the board was at all times in “full compliance with the [SACS] Commission’s expressed expectations, Virginia law, the University’s Board Manual, and University policy.”

A copy of this response was provided to The Post by the university following a public records request. (You can read the document for yourself, below, or keep reading my take on it.)

The board states in this response that members had “true and honest reasons” for being disappointed with Sullivan’s performance in her first two years as president, and they were at first unable to share those reasons with the public because “personnel matters are held in confidence.” There were no “outside forces” that influenced the decision or actions, the board wrote.


U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan says she was told by the governing board’s leaders that 15 of 16 members wanted her to resign. (Photo by Norm Shafer/For the Washington Post) (Norm Shafer - FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
The board says its reasons for being dissatisfied with Sullivan were provided in “the explanation regarding the general direction and future of the University previously provided to the University community.” (This likely refers to the list of 10 challenges facing U-Va. that board leader Helen E. Dragas released on June 21.)

“There is no more explanation to give,” the board wrote. “One can agree or disagree with the Board’s decision on the merits, but the stated reasons were, indeed, the reasons. There were, and are, no credible indicia to the contrary.”

Why is this interaction with the accreditors significant? Because, simply put, being accredited is very important to universities of all statures. Even being put on some type of probation is a black mark upon an institution, sometimes making it difficult to recruit students or faculty, obtain research grants or federal funding, hold steady in the rankings of top colleges, or convince alumni to make massive donations. The issue of accreditation has taken on a new significance in recent years, as for-profit institutions play a role in the higher education marketplace. (SACS is the accrediting agency for colleges in the southern states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.)

Soon after being reinstated, Sullivan traveled to Georgia to meet with accreditors and answer their questions. She has since excused herself from handling the matter.


Sullivan, center, at podium, addresses a crowd of supporters after she was reinstated by the Board of Visitors on June 26. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) (Steve Helber - AP)
Some other things that jumped out to me in this response, in no particular order:

* The board says that following the embarrassing errors and shortcomings of the summer, it has “taken steps to insure that policies, procedures and expectations are both improved and clarified so that future board practices are as exemplary as the University’s academic reputation.” In this, the board points to work done during its August retreat, the formation of new committees and the launch of a strategic planning process. A topic that the board says it plans to give attention: communication with constituencies such as students and faculty.

* The board refutes assertions that a small number of board members acted without the consent of the entire board. To this, the board states that “the factual account of the process leading to the President’s resignation does not support this view.” The board describes its members as “independent decision makers of considerable achievement and experience who listen well and often, but then make up their own minds on the issues of the day.”


University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas maintains that the board was acting in the best interests of the university when it asked Sullivan to resign. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) (Steve Helber - AP)
* The board also addressed the notion that it might have overstepped its role: “As a consequence of shared correspondence and public comment and commentary, it has been suggested that the Board or some of its members may have inserted themselves into curricular matters typically reserved to the faculty. Such a conclusion is unfounded.” The board also pointed out that while it can get input from faculty in the hiring, evaluation or removal of a president, it is not required to do so.

* The board also provided a two-page “narrative account” of what happened. Some milestones highlighted: In May and early June, the board’s top two leaders had conversations with each member of the board “about the president’s performance.” Then, “acting upon the belief that a Board consensus existed,” board leaders met with Sullivan and told her “that they believed they had the support of the BOV to ask that the President resign.” It mentions a meeting of the executive board on Sunday, June 11 — a meeting that I believe occurred on Sunday, June 10.

The Post has been covering this story for more than three months. Here are some related articles:

E-mails show U-Va. rector Helen Dragas saw little warning of crisis in president’s ouster

Sullivan seeks lessons from U-Va. crisis

U-Va. Rector Helen Dragas questioned Lady Gaga class

U-Va. faculty leader: ‘This crisis has not gone away’

By  |  08:23 PM ET, 09/21/2012

 
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