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.”