U-Va. Provost John Simon’s defining moment
By Jenna Johnson,
CHARLOTTESVILLE — It took University of Virginia Provost John D. Simon 10 days to figure out the right thing to do.
His boss of nine months, U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan, had resigned in early June at the request of the school’s governing board leaders. He was angered and baffled by the decision, but it was unclear where this brewing crisis was headed and whether he could do anything to change its course.
The stance he took, and the words he spoke, were risky and bold. They would, in the end, solidify his reputation with the faculty and add momentum to the movement that eventually swept Sullivan back into the presidency.
The leadership crisis came to symbolize the challenges facing all public universities, and raised questions about who makes decisions at them. It showed the power of a unified faculty. And it boosted Sullivan and Simon’s approval ratings to uncomfortably high levels.
Early one morning in late September, Simon walked into a faculty committee meeting with a cup of Earl Grey tea.
“Our fearless hero,” one faculty member greeted him. “If you’re smiling, we’re smiling.”
Simon, 55, can’t escape that the leadership crisis of the summer, and his role in it, has come to define him for faculty and students. “It’s unsettling, and it’s unusual,” Simon said. “It’s not based on accomplishment. . . I feel like at any moment someone is going to ask, ‘What has he really done?’ ”
Some jokingly refer to the crisis as “the recent unpleasantness,” but nearly everyone simply refers to it as “June.” Reminders of June are everywhere.
At the faculty meeting, Simon and the faculty leaders discussed “pre-June” issues, such as addressing pay disparities and restructuring how money flows at U-Va. But they also discussed many “post-June” issues,including launching a strategic planning process at the request of the board and addressing questions from the school’s accrediting commission about the attempted June coup.
Simon’s days are usually booked with meeting after meeting. He takes pages of notes, which he later files by date. He has learned that being provost is like playing chess. The sequence of actions matters. He will ask a question of one person at a 10 a.m. meeting and float an idea in an 11 a.m. just so that he can tee up a request for someone else at a 6 p.m. meeting.
The chess metaphor doesn’t work as well this school year. For Simon, it has been more like a series of chess boards with numerous games running at once.
After the crisis, he paused his work on issues that he cares about, such as building up the university’s global programs and coaxing collaboration among disciplines, and spent much of this semester speaking in soothing tones to faculty, alumni, students and others who were concerned about June.
Always, he walks the fine line of earnestly trying to work with the Board of Visitors and continuing to stand by his faculty — a group that remains skeptical about everything.
As he told one concerned official in a meeting in September: “There is angst everywhere about everything right now.”
An immediate connection
Simon and Sullivan first met in the lobby of a Raleigh hotel last summer. She was looking for a new provost, and he was on the shortlist of finalists selected by a search committee. They talked for four hours.
Simon, then vice provost for academic affairs at Duke University, had been courted by universities before and turned down several provost opportunities.
“John is not really a person who wants to be at a place to administer,” said Duke Provost Peter Lange, currently one of the longest serving provosts in the country, with 14 years in the job. “He wants to drive a vision.”
Simon and Sullivan immediately got along and found that they shared a lot of the same views about higher education and leadership values. They both came up through the academic ranks, and continued their scholarly work while being administrators. They are both a little nerdy with warm, disarming personalities — and rich senses of humor.
Simon graduated from Williams College in 1979, then earned a chemistry doctorate at Harvard University and did a fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles. He met and married Diane Szaflarski, a fellow chemist working on her PhD in L.A. Simon joined the faculty at University of California, San Diego. In 1998, he moved to Duke.
Soon he became chair of the chemistry department, then joined the provost’s office. Simon participated in rounds of faculty hires, led a strategic planning process, handled accreditation issues and expanded Duke’s international programs. And following the 2006 scandal involving the Duke lacrosse team, Simon led formal discussions about campus culture problems.
“He was as ready to be a provost as one could be without having actually done the job,” Sullivan said.
Simon called the new job “an opportunity of a lifetime.”
“When I walked the Lawn the first time I was up here in June, I felt I was standing on the grounds that tell the story of higher education in the United States,” Simon said at an August 2011 news conference. “It’s a very special feeling. It made this decision for me almost more emotional than rational.“
U-Va. is not an easy school for an outsider to lead. The historic campus is steeped in history and adored by thousands of well-connected alumni. The school’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, is revered and frequently referenced.
But part of being an outsider is enacting change. In his first year, Simon has been trying to increase the relevancy of the provost’s office and break down the silos of command that often separate schools and departments.
And Simon pushed the faculty to take a more assertive role. U-Va. Faculty Senate President George Cohen said he remembers Simon saying at one meeting: “’You guys have more power than you think you do.’”
On a Friday night in early June, Board of Visitors’ leader Helen Dragas informed Simon and Michael Strine, U-Va. chief operating officer, that the board had asked Sullivan to resign.
The news angered and confused Simon. He didn’t understand why the board had a problem with Sullivan. But he did understand that if she was out, he likely wasn’t far behind.
Early the next morning, he messaged Sullivan. She messaged right back. She was also awake and offered to make him breakfast. They sat for a few hours in the kitchen of the historic president’s house, split an omelet and tried to figure out what went wrong. He didn’t ask what she would do.
The next day, board leaders announced that Sullivan would step down from the presidency at the end of the summer. In a news release, Sullivan cited a “philosophical difference of opinion” with the board.
The questions quickly came and confusion grew. Simon wasn’t sure what to do.
Sunday morning, Simon emailed Dragas to make clear it would not be a good idea for him to become the interim president.
“I believe we all want UVa to be a great University,” Simon wrote, “and as long as I feel aligned with that purpose, I will serve.”
Dragas responded, in part: “If you think about it, this situation provides an unusual opportunity so early in your term to truly define yourself as Provost.”
As the week progressed, the situation spiraled out of control. On Thursday morning, Dragas asked Simon and Strine to issue a joint statement in the next three hours telling the “faculty and staff that you understand that the BOV action is authoritative and resolute.”
Strine, who would later resign, proposed including: “We write as officers of the Board to clarify that the Board of Visitors’ action is resolute and authoritative.”
Simon objected: “This implies as officers we are party to the decision. I will not let anyone spin it that way.” But he agreed to leave in this sentence: “The Board of Visitors’ action is resolute and authoritative.”
That afternoon the U-Va. Faculty Senate Executive Committee announced that it had unanimously adopted a resolution that supported Sullivan and expressed a “lack of confidence” in the board. They soon planned an emergency meeting of the full senate to do the same.
Simon had reached his limit. The time had come to do something.
‘What you think is right’
Early Sunday morning, Father’s Day, Simon received an email from Jason Ally, the outgoing editor of the Cavalier Daily student newspaper who graduated in May. They had never met.
“You’re an important figure on Grounds, someone who both faculty and the greater community is looking to for support in these uncertain circumstances,” wrote Ally, 22. “Don’t hesitate to do what you think is right, and don’t hesitate to be a leader, especially now when there’s quite the leadership vacuum at the University.”
The message was one of hundreds that filled Simon’s inbox. But this one stood out to him, especially the words: Don’t hesitate to do what you think is right, and don’t hesitate to be a leader.
Simon decided he had to take a stance, even if it meant losing his position or once again uprooting his family.
It didn’t take long to write his speech. It took longer to convince the faculty leaders that they could trust him to speak. After the “resolute and authoritative” e-mail, they had reason to be skeptical.
Soon Simon stood at a podium in a packed auditorium at the business school. Five hundred faculty sat before him, with hundreds more in overflow rooms. His presence alone signaled that he was on their side, and they greeted him with a standing ovation.
“I now find myself at a defining moment, confronting and questioning whether honor, integrity and trust are truly the foundational pillars of life at the University of Virginia,” Simon said. “I find myself at a moment when the future of the university is at risk and what our political leadership value in the university is no longer clear.”
He seemed real, genuine, dressed in a tan polo shirt, khaki shorts and tennis shoes.
“The board actions over the next few days will inform me as to whether the University of Virginia remains the type of institution I am willing to dedicate my efforts to help lead,” Simon said, squarely aligning himself with the pro-Sullivan forces.
The seven-minute-long speech received another round of applause. Some interpreted the speech as Simon’s attempt to be named the interim president, not knowing he had already declined the position. Others were disappointed he didn’t make the bold step of quitting. But many called his speech courageous.
“It was a very important moment in this whole series of things, if not the most important moment,” said Cohen, president of the senate. “We all felt like we had our provost back.”