June 22, 2012

VIRGINIA GOV. Robert McDonnell (R) said Friday that he will demand the resignation of the entire governing board of the University of Virginia if it doesn’t come to final agreement next week about the school’s leadership. It was a well-deserved kick in the pants, but it doesn’t go far enough. The board has so thoroughly botched its effort to oust Teresa Sullivan as president that there can be no confidence in its judgment.

If Virginia’s flagship university is to right itself at a time of extraordinary challenges for American higher education, there must be new leadership on the board — and a departure from the secrecy that has helped undermine faith in its decisions.

In the face of a virtual uprising by the university’s major constituencies over the abrupt decision two weeks ago to hand Ms. Sullivan her walking papers, the Board of Visitors has called for a special meeting Tuesday. In a letter to the independent board, Mr. McDonnell reiterated that it’s not the governor’s role to micromanage personnel decisions, but he added that if members fail to reach a final agreement, “I will ask for the resignation of the entire Board on Wednesday.”

The scheduling of the session — which follows an 11-hour board meeting this week in which Ms. Sullivan’s ouster was seemingly reaffirmed with the naming of an interim president — suggests that board members either are having second thoughts or that the unanimity which supposedly marked the initial decision to remove Ms. Sullivan never existed. Neither prospect is very reassuring, and that speaks to the leadership provided by Helen E. Dragas, the rector who is reported to have engineered — along with a board member who has since resigned — Ms. Sullivan’s removal.

Ms. Dragas may have had substantive reasons for wanting a change in leadership. Her statement on the strategic challenges facing the university, though it came too late, offers a thoughtful critique. But, as she has acknowledged, she went about this very much in the wrong way. Why was the decision to remove Ms. Sullivan made in a series of private phone calls and e-mails and not with a vote of the board and the required two-thirds approval? Why has there been a changing — and never adequate — explanation for her removal? Was Ms. Sullivan ever told of the board’s dissatisfaction? Eight of the current members were on the board that selected Ms. Sullivan just two years ago, following an exhaustive search process: What happened?

Because it’s unclear why Ms. Sullivan was asked to resign, it’s hard to know whether her reinstatement would be the best decision. But in the absence of a clear case against her, the deans of the school’s colleges make a powerful argument for restoring her to office. Finding a new president (sure to be no easy task, given the turmoil) would delay the change the board feels is so urgent. Therefore, the deans argue, better to restore Ms. Sullivan and give her the opportunity to accelerate the important decisions.

There’s been too much unexplained scheming and behind-the-scenes maneuvering. At this point, the best course would be for the board, meeting in open session, to reinstate Ms. Sullivan. A new board can then work with her to confront the difficult strategic questions which Ms. Dragas identified — and which Ms. Sullivan, for the most part, agreed must be confronted.