Another minute, another twist in the saga of the botched effort by the University of Virginia’s governing board to fire the school’s popular president, Teresa Sullivan. In the latest news, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) has now warned he will fire the entire board if it doesn’t resolve the situation when it meets on Tuesday.
You can say this for McDonnell: He sounds decisive — or at least, as decisive as he can sound after waiting nearly two weeks for things to get completely out of hand, with protests, resignations and the interim president tapped to replace Sullivan saying he doesn’t want to prepare for the job quite yet.
That is apparently because the Board of Visitors, whose leader, Helen Dragas, led the secretive effort to oust Sullivan, is meeting on Tuesday and there has been some movement toward reinstating the president.
McDonnell’s dramatic ultimatum to the board may sound like a clean way to start over if the decision is made not to reinstate Sullivan — reinstating her would be a different “new beginning” — but it isn’t. There’s no guarantee that such a move would fix anything.
This unfortunate episode was caused when Dragas decided to secretly line up enough votes on the board to get rid of Sullivan — without engaging any of the school’s major constituencies. Dragas, by her own account, didn’t think Sullivan was bold enough as president to meet the challenges facing public universities today. U-Va’s faculty, students and alumni apparently thought otherwise, because the backlash has been fierce.
Dragas said the board members all agreed with her, but it was learned later that some of them didn’t even know about her campaign. There wasn’t a full vote of the board on the subject, it turned out.
And those members who did know must have decided that the secret campaign was the right way to proceed — or at least not a bad enough idea to prompt them to let Sullivan or the school community know about what was going on.
We have no evidence that any of the members understood the school they govern well enough to predict the uprising that would occur.
So why not replace them all?
Members of university and college governing boards have in recent years increasingly been appointed because they are big donors to a school or, in the case of public schools, to a governor who appoints them. They are rarely chosen because they have any expertise in managing an academic institution. U-Va’s governing board of 16 currently has four members with any professional experience in higher education.
McDonnell, a Republican, is responsible for hiring half of the 16 voting members of the board; the other half were appointed by his Democratic predecessor as governor, Tim Kaine. The current Board of Visitors is, then, a product of governors from both parties.
A Huffington Post analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics showed that the current members of the U-Va Board of Visitors “contributed a combined $831,452 to political campaigns in the last three elections, with $682,702 going to Republicans and $148,750 to Democrats.”
If McDonnell thinks he is going to fire everybody and then appoint a new board using the same criteria he did before, he accomplishes pretty much nothing.
What the governor might want to do is look at some principles for governing boards that were spelled out by a group of former university and college presidents at a 2010 roundtable on the character of leadership in higher education. The forum was hosted by the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College in conjunction with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
Recommendations were made for institutions, presidents and governing boards. Below are the recommendations the group came up with for governing boards of colleges and universities. If you read through them, you can see how many the University of Virginia Board of Visitors violated in conducting its secret campaign to oust Sullivan.
It is hard to see how Dragas survives as head of the governing board after the debacle she created, no matter what happens to Sullivan. But whoever runs the governing board from here on out should consider these principles:
Provide the president with the support he or she needs to lead the institution in a time of disruption and uncertainty. A board must make certain that the president has kept it informed on key matters pertaining to the institution. Having educated itself on the issues, a board must be prepared to support a president who has taken a stand on a key decision. Collectively and individually, members of a governing board must devote the effort required to understand the challenges confronting the institution, work effectively with the president in choosing a course of action to address those challenges, and support the president in creating partnerships with faculty and other constituencies to implement the decisions reached.
Appoint board members on the basis of merit. Trustees who are appointed to public universities primarily on the basis of political processes—or to private institutions primarily on the basis of giving potential—can easily dilute the board’s effectiveness as a governing body. Institutions with overly-large boards should consider moving to a model of a smaller, more focused governing body.
Ask the institution for evidence that learning is taking place. As the governing body that takes responsibility for the mission of the institution, a board must create the expectation that the institution document the success of learning in its student body. Instruments such as the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) offer useful points of reference for institutions to develop a culture of evidence that learning is occurring in its academic programs. Colleges and universities are comfortable with the practice of requiring students to submit scores from standardized exams as part of the admissions process; they should participate just as readily in assessment programs to gauge the contribution the institution has made to student learning at the time they graduate.
Identify and address conflicts of interest within the board. Governing boards need to know about conflicts of interest among their membership. A president may have an important role in bringing such matters to the attention of the board chair and possibly offering suggestions for how to address them. But it is the responsibility of the board itself – and the board chair in particular—to call any conflicts of interest to account and resolve the issue. A dysfunctional or unethical board becomes a cloud that hangs over the institution and compromises its ability to fulfill its mission effectively.
Involve the full board—not just the executive committee—in the selection of a president. Every member of the board must be involved in determining the qualities of leadership required in an institution’s next president. To delve through the multiplicity of perspectives and choose wisely among final candidates requires a discerning and engaged board. If the process involves a search consultant, the board must remain actively engaged and in control of the selection process.
Make the periodic “comprehensive” assessment of presidential performance an occasion for evaluating the institution’s progress in attaining its goals. In periodically evaluating the president, the board provides important information that helps a president understand the areas in which his or her performance is strong or in need of improvement. This process also initiates a conversation that focuses on the vitality and strength of the institution itself—and by extension, on the board’s own performance as the governing body.
Provide opportunities for cultivating leadership. Create an environment that allows faculty members and administrators who are interested in pursuing leadership to gain practical experience of the kind that could lead to academic leadership roles within the institution, and even to a presidency. In creating an institutional environment that fosters future leadership, a board should work to counter the natural aversion of many institutions to consider seriously an internal candidate for a senior leadership office, including that of the president. In some instances the internal candidate may be the best choice for the institution.