THE DECISION on Tuesday by the University of Virginia’s governing board to reinstate Teresa A. Sullivan as president restores some order to an institution that has been torn by unprecedented tumult. But the harm done is not so easily undone. Nor do the challenges facing the university magically go away. Events of the past 16 days have brought into stark focus the issues that confront higher education today and the particular liabilities that imperil Virginia’s flagship school. The real work of change must now begin.
When the Board of Visitors announced its unanimous vote — with Rector Helen E. Dragas concurring — a cheer went up from the crowd gathered outside the iconic Rotunda designed by Thomas Jefferson. It was a telling moment that underscored just how badly the board had arrived at and handled the misguided decision to demand Ms. Sullivan’s resignation on June 10. Instead of holding a meeting, openly debating the issues, consulting with campus constituencies and actually taking a vote, board members exchanged e-mails and chatted privately by phone.
Ms. Dragas, who reportedly engineered Ms. Sullivan’s ouster out of dissatisfaction with the president’s pace of change, again acknowledged and apologized for the flawed way the situation was handled. The board gave Ms. Dragas a vote of confidence. But the questions raised by Ms. Dragas’s actions — and the sheep-like willingness of the rest of the board to go along — cannot be easily dismissed.
Not only were the steps of the process wrong, but the board was never able to present a coherent justification for why Ms. Sullivan was asked to resign. Saying “never mind” simply doesn’t cut it; the state deserves better. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) should take the opportunity to remake the board when some members’ terms, including that of Ms. Dragas, expire this month. And one of the first orders of business for the new board should be to address problems in how it operates so that there can never be a repeat of the last two weeks.
But the biggest burden falls to Ms. Sullivan, who must now prove that confidence in her ability to bring about change is not misplaced. Like other institutions of higher education, U-Va. is confronted by issues such as shrinking public support, outmoded faculty workloads and technology’s role in learning. Ms. Sullivan understands and appreciates these challenges, but she has yet to unveil a strategy to deal with them. It’s clear that more than a center devoted to contemplative sciences, a major initiative touted in Ms. Sullivan’s first two years, will be needed.
The extraordinary events of these two weeks — never before has the president of a major research university been forced out and then rehired — could, in some respects, help Ms. Sullivan effect change. Problems that have been swept under the rug are now out in the open and, refreshingly, the university is talking not about its storied past but its uncertain future.