The leadership turmoil on display at the University of Virginia over the past week feels like something out of a Greek drama (perhaps the kind studied in one of the classics courses that have become an issue in the uproar). A popular university president is asked to resign. The board’s rector, who helped to orchestrate the change, gets cast as a villain for her approach to the process. The plotline highlights pressing themes of an era: Budget constraints, fundraising challenges, and the problems top-flight research universities face in changing times. Meanwhile, a chorus of faculty members, students, donors and former officials stand on the sidelines expressing their collective dismay.
But even Aristophanes himself might not have dreamed up the twists and turns that this leadership transition has become. On the same day that the rector, Helen Dragas, made it clear that the board was moving forward with finding an interim president (it named Carl P. Zeithaml, dean of the school’s McIntire School of Commerce, to the post early Tuesday after almost 12 hours of debate), reports said that a group of board members had asked the outgoing president, Teresa Sullivan, about the terms on which she would stay. Sullivan’s predecessor, John T. Casteen III, criticized the board: “The cure for excessive secrecy is not more secrecy,” he said.
And the outgoing president issued her own statement Monday, proudly admitting to being an “incrementalist” and arguing that “corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work.” Meanwhile, other university leaders are sharing their concerns: Executive Vice President and Provost John Simon said on Sunday that “I am now wondering whether my own beliefs about the values of higher education are consistent with our board. The board actions over the next few days will inform me as to whether the University of Virginia remains the type of institution I am willing to dedicate my efforts to help lead.”
Some of this controversy may be inevitable. Charles Elson, an expert on corporate boards of directors (and whose father was rector of the University of Virginia between 1990 and 1992) says that it’s unusual enough for any board, and particularly a nonprofit board, to force a leadership change, and that “anytime a board removes an executive it’s an extraordinary event.” Even as many people are criticizing the board for the way it has handled the transition, Elson, the director of the University of Delaware’s John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance, says “I give boards who remove [top leaders] tremendous latitude, because I know how difficult such a move can be.” Many of these board members know how “agonizing” the process of finding a new leader will be—they went through it two years ago, Elson says, and won’t have made such a decision “willy nilly.”
Still, even if the board knew the decision could spark a reaction, it’s likely no one expected one of this magnitude. No matter how much they may have known that Sullivan was a popular president whose departure would be difficult, surely they did not foresee throngs of student protestors, Facebook pages devoted to Sullivan or a parody Twitter account for @RectorDrago that has apparently since been suspended.
Ensuring a smooth transition is a tricky balancing act that is not easy in the best of situations, much less in a controversial one that involves a popular and respected leader. There are allegiances, personal egos and risks inherent in any leadership change. But better communication, more candid dialogue about the reasons for Sullivan’s ouster, and the immediate naming of an interim president who could have provided leadership through the last week might have helped. A contrite tone from Dragas in a statement Monday (she said, for instance, that “you – our U.Va. family – deserved better from this Board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear”) is unlikely to change the minds of many people who would like her to step down or Sullivan to be reinstated.
Yes, U-Va.’s board has a responsibility for ensuring that the right leadership is in place for the university, and it could very well be that there is someone who is a better fit for the job in these times than Teresa Sullivan. That is for the board to decide. But it is also the board’s responsibility to ensure a smooth transition from one leader to the next. Making the call on the right leader may be one of the board’s hardest decisions, but helping to craft a calm change in control may be its hardest job.
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