In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, when the University of Virginia’s board of visitors finally named Carl P. Zeithaml, the man with the least enviable job in the state of Virginia, as its interim president, only one person voted against him. That person was W. Heywood Fralin, the CEO of the nursing home operator Medical Facilities of America.
Fralin did not just say “nay” and walk away, however. He issued a public statement that was generous, candid and forward-looking, all marks of good leadership. While he was careful to extend compliments to the man who won the job (Fralin said his vote “had nothing to do with my opinion of Carl Zeithaml’s leadership capabilities. I…believe him to be an extraordinary and capable leader”), he was also unafraid to criticize the process leading to Sullivan’s resignation as “flawed” and called for the university community, now that Zeithaml has been selected, to work together. “The University of Virginia is far more important than any one of us.”
Fralin also didn’t shy away from revealing that the vote for Sullivan’s resignation had not been unanimous, as it had previously been described. “My vote was an indication of my dissatisfaction with the process and the decision that lead to the resignation of Terry Sullivan. I have not been presented with evidence that I believe merits asking for her resignation, nor have I ever indicated that I would be willing to support such an effort.”
Perhaps, as a former rector—Fralin led the board from 2007 to 2009—he felt empowered to make his case known, moreso than other members who’ve been more recently named. Having been in a position of leadership on the board before, he’s likely more confident in expressing his views, less concerned about what others think of him, and more aware of how critical dissent is to the proper functioning of a board.
Or, it’s possible that with his term ending in less than two weeks, Fralin wasn’t afraid to speak out about the process behind Sullivan’s ouster or reveal that he was never behind the effort in the first place. Fralin is one of just two members who will not be eligible for reappointment as of July 1. (The other is Glynn D. Key, a GE executive who left the marathon meeting before the votes were cast. The two other members whose terms end on July 1—but are eligible for reappointment—are Robert D. Hardie, one of two people who abstained from the vote, and Rector Helen Dragas herself.)
Of course, there’s always the chance that Fralin would have voted the same way no matter when he joined the board or when his term was scheduled to expire, and that he simply spoke his mind. He wasn’t the only one to do that: Board member Hunter E. Craig said he had worked “to reaffirm [Sullivan’s] status as president of the University of Virginia.” According to a report from the Post, at one point during the meeting eight of the board’s 16 members supported Sullivan. But in the end, Sullivan was the only one to vote against the move.
Whatever the right call may be regarding U-Va.’s leadership, and whoever the best president may be for the university in today’s times, one thing is for sure: If an institution does not have a board capable of showing dissent, it is in trouble. One can only hope that when Governor McDonnell nominates new members to the board, he will select more people willing to do so.
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