by Deborah Davidson, vice president of governance education and research
We don’t usually comment on university board situations, since our sister organization, the Association of Governing Boards, is the expert in university boards. But the evolving situation at the University of Virginia is just too important not to address the lessons to be learned by all boards.
In a nutshell, the board chair, Rector Helen E. Dragas, engineered the ouster of university president Teresa Sullivan by garnering enough votes, in secret, to remove her, and calling the other board members to let them know she already had a majority and they might as well go along with it. According to published reports, there was no meeting, no discussion; no opportunity for debate. And no reason given when the announcement was made: just “Sullivan removed. Unanimous decision.”
In a public relations nightmare reminiscent of the recent Susan G. Komen fiasco, the university community has reacted with passion and vehemence against this precipitous ouster of the reportedly very popular president, whose tenure will be, assuming she leaves in August, less than two years. Several large donors have threatened to rescind gifts, and other prestigious universities are apparently preparing offers to scoop up disgruntled rock-star professors.
I’m tempted to compare the whole sad affair to the machinations of junior-high youngsters who whisper to one another they don’t like the new kid in school…shhh…pass it on. Such judgments are never made out loud. But these are adults, and this is the board of a world-class university; just ask the straight-A high school students who weren’t accepted there. Decisions of this magnitude require discussion and debate. The entire board must own the decision. Apparently the underlying reason for the ouster was that some board members felt Sullivan’s methods were too slow; they believed more rapid change was necessary in a difficult financial environment. A debatable point, surely. Summary dismissal, without an opportunity to have that debate, it seems to me, brings the board’s process into serious question.
And of course, it’s not over. An interim president was just named, but some are calling for the ouster of the board, and Sullivan’s reinstatement. All this could have been avoided if the board’s decision-making process for this critical decision had been more inclusive. I don’t know if Sullivan was doing a good job; certainly the university community, including the faculty, the students, and the former president, seemed to think she was. That’s not the point. Boards just can’t engineer these huge decisions, which have enormous ramifications, without thoughtful debate leading up to a true vote instead of what amounted to a whispering campaign.
I hope some good comes from this. I hope you’ll look at your board’s processes and determine whether the board’s biggest decisions come as a result of open debate, or through back-channel machinations. If your executive committee frequently acts on behalf of the plenary board, with the result that the full board acts as a rubber stamp – please rethink that. Then think about this: A giant PR firm has been hired to help the university deal with the fallout, paid for by its foundation. Is that how you want to spend your donors’ money?