June 18, 2012

U-Va. board has an obligation to community

THE UNIVERSITY OF Virginia’s governing board has made clear that it is standing by its decision to oust Teresa Sullivan as president. Not only is that its prerogative but it also is the board’s duty to make its own, independent judgments about what best serves the institution — no matter how unpopular or controversial.

What is not the board’s right is to think it can act with unilateral secrecy and then expect the public to trust in the correctness — let alone the integrity — of its decision.

For the last week, the Charlottesville campus has been roiled by the surprise action of the Board of Visitors to replace the popular Ms. Sullivan after just two years. Students protested, the Faculty Senate voted a formal condemnation and donors have threatened to withhold gifts.

On Monday, the mishandling of this issue was made complete when Rector Helen E. Dragas, the head of the board, issued a statement filled with platitudes and devoid of useful information.

She expressed “regret” for the “pain, anger and confusion” caused by the handling of Ms. Sullivan’s ouster and conceded that “our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this University.” Yet, even as she admitted the university “deserved better” from the board, Ms. Dragas failed to provide any insights — aside from vague references to “mutually agreed-upon strategic goals” and the pace of change — about the factors that led to Ms. Sullivan’s forced resignation.

Indeed, the clearest insights for the board’s action came from Ms. Sullivan who, in a statement Monday, indicated the board pressed her to make “deep top-down cuts” that would erode the school’s core programs.

“Whatever has happened heretofore has been kept in silence. That’s not how Virginia works,” is the understated way former U-Va. president John Casteen criticized the process. It’s disturbing that, despite initial claims about the board unanimously coming toa carefully considered rejection of Ms. Sullivan, there were some board members who, as reported by Post reporters Daniel de Vise and Anita Kumar, were not originally consulted.

Instead, according to Post accounts, Ms. Dragas worked behind the scenes with Vice Rector Mark J. Kington to engineer Ms. Sullivan’s ouster, and the board never met as a group to discuss the decision. “It just boggles my mind,” said House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville). “You might run a company like that, but this is a public institution, and a small number of people should not be making a decision.”

The board should fully disclose the process it used in reaching its decision and outline its vision for the university and how it differed from that of Ms. Sullivan.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has refused to intrude into the process, rightly arguing that it is up to the board to run the university. But the independence from politics that the board enjoys carries with it an obligation to the legacy and the communities that undergird the university. Ms. Dragas and her colleagues have yet to meet that obligation.