Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On the Termination of the University of Virginia's President--More Aggressive Boards, Politicians, and Faculty May Reshape Governance of Public Universities

Penn State's former President, Graham Spanier, is not the only high level and once highly regarded university administrator to lose his job in the face of a loss of confidence by a governing board.  Teresa Sullivan of the University of Virginia has also just stepped down.  See Jack Stripling, Teresa Sullivan Will Step Down as UVa's President After 2 Years in Office, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 10, 2012.

 It should be noted that Sullivan, like many other university Presidents were substantially affected by the Penn State Board's removal of Graham Spanier:
 Sullivan wasn’t afraid to confront controversy. The day after Graham Spanier was ousted as Pennsylania State University’s president because of the handling of allegations of child sex abuse by a former assistant football coach, Sullivan spoke at a U-Va. board meeting. An outspoken advocate of transparency, she said universities need to foster a culture in which it is okay to question authority and to flag wrongdoing.
“I also must be willing to accept feedback, positive or negative, if I am to lead effectively, and I must set a tone that says bad news can rise to the top of this organization without any messenger being shot for bearing it,” Sullivan said. (, and ,University of Virginia president to step down, The Washington Post, June 10, 2012)

In both instances, and for two very different reasons, boards of trustees have begun to exercise long atrophied muscle in the oversight of the highest level administrators of a university.  In the process boards appear poised to take a more prominent role in helping shape the character and nature of the American university.  The governance template of the last generation--with a deferential board and a strong president may be giving way to a model with a more activist board and a more collaborative president.  Each in their own ways, Presidents Spanier and Sulliven are exemplars of the old model; they may not fit emerging realities.  This emerges most clearly in the statement the Rector of the University of Virginia, Helen Dragas, reprinted below, along with the Statement of the University of Virginia Faculty Senate.

Here is Rector Dragas Statement:

(Pix of Helen Dragas from Board of Visitors Begins Year With Challenges Old and New, UVa Today, Sept. 17, 2011)

Remarks of Rector Helen Dragas
Meeting with Vice Presidents and Deans
June 11, 2012

Thank you all for assembling here today in person and by phone. I apologize for disrupting your weekend and appreciate your willingness to engage with us today.

The Vice Rector and I have called this meeting because we wanted you, as leaders of the University, to be the first to hear some very important news. Yesterday the Board and President Sullivan agreed that she shall step down as President of the University on August 15th. We intend to name an interim president expeditiously, and to install him or her before the students arrive back on grounds.

We know this news is a great shock to the institution. We deeply appreciate all that Terry has given to the University over the last two years. We like and respect Terry, and she has done many things well. Her broad engagement with all parts of the University community was refreshing to students, faculty, and staff, parents, and alumni. Her increased presence in Washington and abroad was commendable. Her administrations' work with you on the initiation of the internal budget model has been a significant step towards creating an important tool for change.

Nevertheless, the board feels strongly and overwhelmingly that we need bold and proactive leadership on tackling the difficult issues that we face. The pace of change in higher education and in health care has accelerated greatly in the last two years. We have calls internally for resolution of tough financial issues that require hard decisions on resource allocation. The compensation of our valued faculty and staff has continued to decline in real terms, and we acknowledge the tremendous task ahead of making star hires to fill the many spots that will be vacated over the next few years as our eminent faculty members retire in great numbers. These challenges are truly an existential threat to the greatness of UVA.

We see no bright lights on the financial horizon as we face limits on tuition increases, an environment of declining federal support, state support that will be flat at best, and pressures on health care payors. This means that as an institution, we have to be able to prioritize and reallocate the resources we do have, and that our best avenue for increasing resources will be through passionate articulation of a vision and effective development efforts to support it. We also believe that higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions.

We want UVA to remain in that top echelon of universities well into the 21st century and beyond. We want this to be a place that lives up to Mr. Jefferson's founding vision of excellence. We want it to be a place that attracts the best and the brightest in scholarship, teaching, patient care, and community service.

To achieve these aspirations, the board feels the need for a bold leader who can help develop, articulate, and implement a concrete and achievable strategic plan to re-elevate the University to its highest potential. We need a leader with a great willingness to adapt the way we deliver our teaching, research, and patient care to the realities of the external environment. We need a leader who is able to passionately convey a vision to our community, and effectively obtain gifts and buy-in towards our collective goals.

The Board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation. We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change. The world is simply moving too fast.

We all have tremendous personal respect and affection for Terry, and appreciate the effort you have all put into making her Presidency a success. We wanted it to work as well. That certainly would have been easier on all of us.
We will provide more details on the process and timing of the search for a new president in the coming weeks as those plans are further developed. In the meantime, we thank you for your continued loyalty to our UVA goals and values, which have endured for 193 years and which transcend any one individual.

The appropriate day of judgment on this decision will come at the time that a new president has been installed and given an opportunity to prove himself or herself as the leader the institution needs and deserves.

We deeply appreciate your intentional and united efforts to move us forward.

Helen Dragas, Rector approved distribution of this message.

What is interesting is the position of the Board--they were looking for substantial and fundamental transformation without loss of reputation.  The President couldn't deliver it all, at least at the pace set for her by the Board.  They appeared to be looking for forward looking risk taking and they got a solid manager with a cautious streak.  What makes this ironic, of course, is that cautious managerialism was until recently the gold standard for university administrators and their middle level managers at the decanal and chancellor level.But times change--and what was once a set of characteristics that were the touchstone of administration now becomes a model of what could be viewed (by a more active board) as overcautious obstructionism and an unwillingness to work more cooperatively with an institutional superior (the board) by its principal agent (the president). And more interesting still, for all of the (hindsight heightened) missteps in this termination, the board appears to be taking the realities of foundational changes in the education industry more seriously than the principals managers charged with anticipating and preparing for change. And they are looking for a faster pace to change.  While one can debate the value of this approach, one ought not to ignore it. 

The University Faculty Senate of the University of Virginia did not respond positively to the termination.  Their stand showed courage in the face of the strength of the board's action.  There were two principal reasons for the Faculty Senate action.  The first was a dispute about the substance of the reasons for dismissal.  The other, and more troubling in the face of greater board activism in governance, was that the Faculty Senate appeared to have been completely cut out of the process. Shared governance, apparently, applies only during good times and only with respect to small matters. The University Faculty Senate appears poised to conduct its own independent investigation of the termination.  It will be interesting to see how they follow through.

Faculty Senate statement on President Teresa Sullivan’s resignation
By on June 11, 2012

Below is the full statement released by the University of Virginia Faculty Senate in response to the resignation of President Teresa Sullivan:

“June 11, 2012 — Yesterday, the Faculty of the University of Virginia, along with the rest of the University community, learned that the Board of Visitors and President Sullivan “mutually agreed that she will step down as president of the University of Virginia effective August 15, 2012.” We are shocked and dismayed by this news. We were blindsided by this decision.

The Faculty Senate Executive Council has worked closely and effectively with President Sullivan during her two-year term. She has impressed us with her intelligence, leadership, and commitment to transparent administration and open, honest communication. We witnessed her renowned dedication to higher education. She excited faculty across the Grounds and created a sense of optimism about the University’s future.

We find the Board’s statement inadequate and unsatisfactory. We understand that the University, like most of its peer institutions, faces tremendous challenges. We believe President Sullivan made meaningful progress toward meeting these challenges, and put in place strategies and personnel to move the University forward.

As elected representatives of the faculty, we are entitled to a full and candid explanation of this sudden and drastic change in University leadership. We intend to investigate this matter thoroughly and expeditiously, and will meet with the Board as soon as possible. The Faculty Senate will continue to gather and give voice to faculty views and do all we can to preserve and protect strong faculty governance at the University.

We are determined and committed that Mr. Jefferson’s University will continue to be a beacon of excellence, honor, and compassion in a troubled world.”
This aspect of the termination, though it will tend to be overlooked by most observers, is actually quite important. A board that fails, at critical moments, to be sensitive to shared governance, may find it harder to manage a university well.

But the Senate and board are not the only stakeholders involved.  As a public university it is also to be expected that the political stakeholders would also have something to say. The Virginia Governor also weighed in:

Governor Bob McDonnell issued the following statement this afternoon regarding the mutually agreed upon resignation of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan. Per the agreement reached by the Board of Visitors and Dr. Sullivan, she will step down from her post on August 15th.

"I want to thank Dr. Teresa Sullivan for her leadership of the University of Virginia over the past two years. Serving as the President of Mr. Jefferson's University is a tremendous responsibility and she has fulfilled her duties with honor, energy and good stewardship. In addition, President Sullivan has been a great partner with our Administration in our efforts to increase access and affordability at Virginia's colleges and universities. Through her leadership, Virginia added nearly 1,000 new student slots and recently enacted the lowest yearly tuition increase in over a decade. Having the University of Virginia play such a leading role in higher education reform was immensely helpful in ensuring that this work to expand access and affordability all across our higher education system would be successful and broadly embraced by all state institutions.

Since its founding in 1819, the University has played a seminal role in higher education in America. Thomas Jefferson's vision lives on today as the University is a modern, diverse and globally-recognized educational landmark. I have great confidence that the Board of Visitors will conduct a thorough and diligent search for the next President of the University and will find the right individual for this prestigious and pivotal post. The University of Virginia has always enjoyed world-class leadership befitting the school's place in academia, and I am sure that will continue to be the case in the years ahead." (From Statement of Governor Bob McDonnell on University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, June 10, 2012)

Jeff Selingo of the Chronicle of Higher Education got it partly right:
Jeff Selingo, editorial director of The Chronicle of Higher Education, who also writes a blog on the future of higher education, said major public universities across the country are facing budget pressure similar to UVa.

“Last year we saw two high-profile situations, in Arizona and Wisconsin, where flagship university presidents left under somewhat similar circumstances,” Selingo said. “They are seeing large cuts in funding from the states, they are under pressure to do more with less in terms of income and they are unsure what steps to take next.”

Selingo, who said he has no first-hand knowledge of the relationship between Sullivan and the Board of Visitors, said comments made by UVa Rector Helen Dragas to staff and faculty show UVa is under similar pressures. (From Bryan McKenzie, Sullivan's dismissal a sign of the times?, The Daily Progress, June 11, 2012)
But I think there is more to it than that.  For a long time Board have been willing to defer to their chief executive officers.  Times were good.  Benchmarking reduced risks, and provided the protections of homogeneity in a fundamentally conservative industry (despite the bruhaha over "liberal" faculty, the business of education has always been very conservative, whatever the political allegiances of administrators).  But hard times provide an opportunity for change.  And change is coming to the university--both at the highest and lowest levels.  Control over the content of education, the purpose of education, the role of undergraduate and graduate education, the internationalization of education and its consequences, the sustainability of tenure, the exploitation of contract faculty, the role of teaching and research at elite institutions, the metastasizing of bureaucracy at the instance of the logic of managerialism and the transposition of political battles from the state capital to its university halls are all issues that will change the face of university education int he next decade.  The contradiction of increasing political branch involvement even as the apparatus of government retreats from its financial obligations to the universities.  Change is coming quickly, the consequences can be severe and boards no longer feel confident they can leave the pacing and response to change to an administrative bureaucracy institutionally fine tuned for maximum effectiveness in "staying the course." 

We also now know the institutional character of that change--a much more aggressively involved board of directors.   There are limits to this change--board members do not work full time and in public universities boards will be competing with another actor making aggressive governance related moves--the political classes.  Boards do not have the experience and may not have the institutional temperament for the exercise of sustained transparent and engaged governance. Change of the type that produced the termination of President Sullivan, and others--recently for example, the President of the University of Oregon.  But the days of the autonomous university president stamping a university with the force of her character and vision over a generation is likely over.

I expect Teresa Sullivan will not stand silent long. But I expect that the well turned out model she represents is passing.  But it will be not be a quiet passing. Stay tuned.


  1. I am posting a comment from a reader who will remain anonymous:

    What I find most interesting about the statement by Dragas was that she lists all these external constraints on the conduct of a senior administrator or President of a University - then says she wants visionary leadership. State institutions are inherently ill suited for that sort of visionary leadership, and individuals possessed of those capabilities are frequently revolted by the constraints placed upon their leadership by state policy, faculty regulations, and students.

    University boards are in my opinion the ultimate perversion of the corporate structure. Take people out of a field where their expertise lies, yet select people whose confidence in their own judgment is often extraordinarily high. Remove the threat of suit, and replace the threat of angry shareholders with a more attenuated constituency - students and parents. Finally, place the power of selection in the hands of the executive branches of state government. Its like taking the worst attributes of American corporate law and American federalism and removing all constraints.

    UVA looks incredibly bush league. Dragas looks like a moron, and the fact is no matter what Dragas may want UVA to be, UVA will never be a national medical center or a driving force in online education. Charlottesville is between major, extremely well endowed medical centers at Duke, Wake Forest Bowman Grey, Georgetown, and Johns Hopkins. Further, the gold standard for hospital care in the state of Virginia has in recent years become Richmond's Medical College of Virginia, affiliated with Virginia Commonwealth University. The University of Virginia medical center lacks the geographic proximity, the physical plant, and the infrastructure to compete with such institutions, and unless Dragas is willing to donate the $1B it would take to match the resources of the universities listed above, that reality will not change.

    Further, UVA cannot and will never compensate faculty to the level that privately funded ACC and regional peers like Duke, Wake Forest, Johns Hopkins, and Georgetown do. Finally, Dragas provides no metrics to justify her decision beyond vague and unsubstantiated aphorisms that sound like the teachings of an executive mba seminar on "modern leadership."

    The reason cautious leadership was the gold standard for universities was that university boards largely had the common sense to recognize when and where they reached their own "ceiling of complexity", and also recognize that business acumen was in no way predictive of excellent judgment in the context of public university governance. Dragas, along with the leaders of the Penn State board, clearly have forgotten that lesson.

    Further, I find Dragas like many business executives writes as if Sullivan were managing a corporation, and not a state-funded educational institution. Universities move slow. That is reality, and it isn't changing. Dragas's statement is long on broad sweeping generalizations and external causes, but far short on substance. Further, Uva is public, and has large constituencies with vested interests. The only way to accelerate the types of changes Dragas is discussing is to ram them down the throats of a lot of people who cumulatively contribute much more to the university than Mrs. Dragas. Indeed, I wonder what Dragas's own interest in this might be.

    1. Well stated in the extreme. The uninformed whims of Dragas do not a governing structure make.

  2. UVA has an outstanding president in Terry Sullivan, who is highly regarded by her peers and by everyone who has worked with her in higher education. This precipitate action by the Board will likely make it very difficult for the University to attract anyone of similar caliber as her successor. Dragas's vague reference to online learning, which appears to endorse the recent initiatives by Stanford, MIT, and other "elite" universities to provide free course content, suggests a naivete about what this can accomplish, as none of these initiatives has yet to come up with a viable long-term business model. The Board seems to be trying to micromanage change, which is not a good role for any board to undertake.