Experts draw lessons from U-Va. crisis

When Teresa Sullivan was forced out of the presidency of the University of Virginia two years into her popular tenure, many in the academic world were shocked. They were stunned again Tuesday when the board gave her the job back.

Such reversals are extremely rare, higher-education experts said.

“We’ve all been talking about it,” said Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities, who has found people all over the country curious about the ouster, the prolonged campus paralysis and the final, astonishing flip-flop.

Some experts think the final decision was lousy: “It will undermine public university governance for decades to come,” said Sheldon Steinbach, a higher-education lawyer. “Public university trustees could be viewed as gutless political appointees who would succumb to pressure when harnessed by faculty and outside influences that perhaps don’t understand the nuances of a given situation.”

Some think it was wise: “Clearly, because of the way the governance fell off the tracks, there’s a recognition that it was time for the board to have a do-over and do what it could to right the process again,” Legon said.

Why reversals are rare

But the experts were united in their appraisal of why such reversals are so rare: Most boards don’t make so many missteps along the way. There was a series of blunders at U-Va., said Alan A. Rudnick, a governance consultant in Richmond.

That’s why people are talking about rectors, quorums and previously little-known members of the university’s Board of Visitors.

When university governance is done right, experts said, the process is ignored.

The damage to U-Va. could be lasting, said Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, because boards and presidents need to work together with mutual confidence.

And the U-Va. board now seems to be “chaotic and ineffectual,” Rudnick said.

One of the first lessons experts draw from the episode is a reminder that there is a greater expectation of transparency from leaders now than in the past — especially on a college campus, which has keenly engaged constituencies. That is particularly true at U-Va., where Jeffersonian traditions have bred an expectation of open dialogue and mutual trust, Legon said.

Because the decision to oust Sullivan seemed to unfold in backrooms and private conversations rather than with an open debate and vote by the full board, it left the university community demanding to know what had happened behind the scenes.

“One lesson for the board is for it to recognize it is the ultimate decision-maker,” but also to understand it is part of a community, Legon said. That doesn’t mean shying away from tough decisions, he said, but boards must plan for fallout from those decisions.

‘Speak with one voice’

The board “has a right to be as contentious and divided as they want in the boardroom during the conversation, but once the decision is made, they should speak with one voice,” Legon said.

A decision as momentous as firing a president — one of the most important things a board ever does — should at the very least have been announced with a news release outlining clear reasons and a transition plan, several experts said.

By the time the U-Va. rector gave a detailed statement last week outlining the reasons Sullivan had been asked to leave, Rudnick said, it was too late. The campus and its community of supporters were consumed by rumor and speculation.

Some said there was a lesson for Sullivan, too. When told by two board members that they had the votes to fire her, said law professor John Banzhaf III of George Washington University, Sullivan should have insisted on a vote by the full board and a chance to make her case.

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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