In a historic moment for the University of Virginia—and for institutions run by boards of directors everywhere—the board of visitors for “Mr. Jefferson’s university” has reinstated Teresa Sullivan as president. In a unanimous vote, the 15 members of the board agreed—“wholeheartedly,” “with high honor and great pleasure,” and with an “unequivocal” yes, in the words of several members—to reverse their controversial decision to force Sullivan’s resignation.
This is a remarkable moment. A board of directors pushes for the ouster of a leader and then, following an extraordinary uproar from the institution’s community, unanimously votes to reinstate her. Countless people played their own various leadership roles in pushing for this change: the U-Va. faculty and deans, who called for Sullivan’s reinstatement; the many students and alumni who protested the move; the interim president who refused to engage in further talks until a decision was actually made; the few board members (at least until now) who spoke out publicly against her exit.
Then there’s Governor Bob McDonnell. While he was seen as cautious by some for not doing more, McDonnell did the right thing in letting the board work the issue out on its own. “I’m not instructing them how to vote and what to do. I think it would be absolutely inappropriate,” McDonnell said on a radio call-in show. He insisted repeatedly when asked to intervene that he would not get involved. In a letter to the board dated June 22, McDonnell wrote that “doing so undermines the entire university governance structure, and weakens the chain of command and authority of the Board and President.”
In the same letter, McDonnell goes on to issue stark instructions: Make a final decision or go home. The governor asked the board to “eliminate any uncertainty on the future of President Sullivan immediately,” “act as a unified Board when your deliberations are done,” and make a final decision by Tuesday. “If you fail to do so, I will ask for the resignation of the entire board on Wednesday,” McDonnell’s letter warned.
I don’t know how much this letter, sent to the board on Friday, made an impact on the board’s decision-making process. It could have come along as the board was already well on its way to reinstating Sullivan. Or, it’s possible that it could have lit a fire under members to take charge of a situation that was in limbo for far too long. The damage from the board’s questionable decision to remove President Sullivan from the job was starting to look like nothing compared to the uncertainty, ambiguity and anxieties that were plaguing the U-Va. community with no one in charge.
In the most normal of circumstances, a group of 15 or 16 people very often finds itself struck by decision paralysis and plagued by groupthink. This is a common problem on many boards. But that must be especially true when neither of its options are easy ones: admitting defeat and reversing a controversial decision, or standing firm on a choice that no one seems to support but them. Add extraordinary media scrutiny and a chairperson (or in this case, rector) who’s come under particularly vitriolic fire for the decision, and I have to imagine the U-Va. board of visitors found itself dealing with an almost debilitating atmosphere for normal board functioning.
Again, I don’t know what kind of impact, if any, Governor McDonnell’s letter had on getting the board to come to a unanimous conclusion. (Seemingly everyone in the state of Virginia, after all, was issuing calls for Sullivan’s reinstatement.) But the above-the-fray approach he took to the situation was the right one, even if the governing system itself may need some tweaking. And his call for immediately eliminating the leadership uncertainty and acting “without regard to any outside political, personal or media pressure”—and then threatening to remove them if they became incapable of doing so—may have been just what was needed.
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