Lessons learned

Drama at U.Va. underscores need for transparency and change

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Print this page by Paula C. Squires

By the time the latest crop of University of Virginia students shows up for classes this month, one of the most riveting dramas of the summer will long be over. President Teresa A.  Sullivan continues her tenure as president, despite a failed attempt to oust her by a small committee of the school’s board of visitors.

One of the architects of the debacle, Rector Helen Dragas, also continues in her role as a board member after reappointment to a second four-year term by Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Whether the governor should have allowed Dragas to stay after an episode that turned the university on its head for 16 days in June remains a subject of debate. The same board that reinstated Sullivan on June 26, however, also gave a vote of confidence to Dragas, who thought Sullivan was not moving fast enough on a strategy to maintain U.Va.’s status as one of the country’s top public universities.

Now that everyone has kissed and made up, observers are talking about lessons learned. First and foremost: If a board wants to remove a sitting president, it should take a full vote.  McDonnell said as much in a statement congratulating Sullivan on her reinstatement. “The board itself admittedly made mistakes and did not act with the procedural transparency that should be accorded such a significant decision.”

Put another way by Jay S. Poole, a consultant in Blacksburg and a former rector and member of the Board of Visitors at Radford University,  “It’s inconceivable that you would fire a sitting president without a vote by the entire board.” 

The lack of transparency in removing Sullivan enraged U.Va’s faculty, sparking a firestorm of protest. They held demonstrations and called for the resignations of Dragas and Kington (who did step down). These actions helped create the momentum to reinstate Sullivan.

Plus, the board had the governor’s boot at its back. McDonnell gave them a deadline to resolve the issue of Sullivan’s status or be removed from the board.

Another lesson?  There’s strength in numbers. Photos and videos of thousands of faculty, students and alumni demonstrating on the Lawn in favor of Sullivan pressured the board to reconsider.

Finally there are many challenges facing higher education, and boards expect action.  Whether its online classes, budgetary restraints or faculty compensation, it’s becoming increasingly clear that schools must find new ways to remain competitive against a backdrop of decreasing public support. 

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