University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan, center, at podium, addresses a crowd of supporters outside the university Rotunda. (Steve Helber/AP)

This piece is part of an On Leadership round table on rethinking university governance, in the wake of the U-Va. and Penn State crises.


What a bruising summer for governing boards.

In the space of just a few weeks, the boards at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Virginia both came under fire for highly public missteps. While no one should equate the tragedy of Penn State’s sex-abuse scandal with the forced ouster and subsequent rehiring of Virginia’s president, both stories put boards on the defensive and offered lessons for trustees everywhere.

Different as they are, the controversies at Penn State and U-Va. share a common and ironic thread. In both instances, key decision makers appear to have concluded that shielding details from the public would best protect the reputations of individuals and institutions. The opposite proved true.

Penn State’s board has primarily been faulted for not asking enough hard questions. But an independent report also implied that the trustees were complicit in a culture that would use any means—even abject secrecy—to protect the reputation of the storied Nittany Lions football program. As for U-Va., the board’s decision to offer only the most oblique of rationales for ousting a popular president greatly contributed to the early backlash from faculty, students and alumni.

As a journalist who covered both controversies, I have spent the better part of the last two months talking with higher-education experts about what college governing boards can learn from Penn State and U-Va. One of the clear takeaways from those conversations is that transparency, while sometimes temporarily painful, is preferable in the long run. If these stories showed us anything, it is that the truth will come out, and a board is better positioned to deal with uncomfortable truths when they are openly confronted from the beginning.

Shortly after Teresa A. Sullivan resigned from U-Va., citing an unspecified “philosophical difference” with the board, I spoke with her predecessor over the phone. John T. Casteen III, who was U-Va.’s president for two decades, was as fired up as I’ve ever heard him. “I can put in rank order the things that concern me,” he said. “The chief concern I have is the secrecy of what is supposed to be a public process.”

I played devil’s advocate: But what is the board supposed to do? Come out in public and rake Sullivan over the coals? They have the authority to remove her. Is obscurity not the most dignified approach?

“If the choice is between the ugliness of last week and the ugliness of a meeting where the board says what their concerns are, I think if I were a board member I would take the public disclosure,” Mr. Casteen said.

There is no indication that the board was worried about some kind of malfeasance under Sullivan’s watch or other actions that could produce embarrassing headlines. Rather, it appears the board was concerned that U-Va. was not sufficiently transforming itself for the future, specifically in terms of online education. This is a discussion many universities are already having in a very public way. U-Va. endured weeks of criticism just to get the same conversation started. 

Penn State, which local reporters sometimes jokingly refer to as “the Kremlin,” has taken its own public flogging for a lack of transparency. The university’s harshest critics suggest that Penn State’s penchant for secrecy was central to its handling of allegations that Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, had inappropriate contact with young boys on campus.

Mr. Sandusky was convicted in June on 45 counts related to child sex abuse.

The university’s trustees have been faulted for what they failed to ask about Sandusky, rather than what they sought to conceal. Even so, an independent review of the scandal criticized the board for a structure and an attitude that allowed secrets to fester.

Louis J. Freeh, the former FBI director who led the review, argued that the board was simply not positioned to receive bad news. It was not until March, a year after the Patriot News first reported on a Grand Jury investigation of Sandusky, that Penn State’s board established its Committee on Audit, Risk, and Legal Compliance. Before that time, there was not a system for receiving regular reports on risks, the Freeh report found. In short, Penn State’s trustees did not create formal opportunities for the airing of hard truths—publicly or even behind closed doors.

Penn State’s approach to risk before the scandal was hardly unique. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in July, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and United Educators, a major insurer of colleges, sounded the alarm on the lax approach most boards take toward risk management in 2009. In a survey of more than 600 colleges, less than half “mostly agreed” that risk management was a priority at their institutions.

It is in this context that we can begin to more clearly understand a board like the one at Penn State, where trustees have said in hindsight that they wish there had been more frank talk. Instead, as one trustee told the Freeh group, board meetings were “scripted,” and trustees were told of “rainbows” but not “rusty nails.”

There is little doubt that trustees across the country are taking note of what happened at Penn State and U-Va. and silently wondering where their own blind spots may be. If there is an easy lesson in these complex stories, it may well be that they should do much more of that wondering aloud.

Jack Stripling is a senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education , where he covers college leadership.

The full On Leadership round table on university trustees:

A bruising summer for governing boards

Drawing back the curtain on our deeply flawed trustee system

Three warning signs that university leadership is on autopilot

What we have here is failure to communicate

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