June 22nd, 2012
Fascinating stuff happening at the University of Virginia (UVa) these days, a large and once prestigious public institution. In one corner, you have the ousted president, Teresa Sullivan, a neatly coiffed bespectacled woman who could easily pass as Richie Cunningham’s cookie-baking grandmother. In the other corner, you have Helen Dragas, sharp-chinned chair of the board (of visitors) of UVA, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Cruella D. Vil. Many are keeping a close eye on the dramatically unfolding events that began when Dragas announced Sullivan would be stepping down as president after two short years in the office. Sullivan hasn’t been quiet or shy about any of this, fueling the drama by very publicly disclosing she was fired.
Language is critical here. Sullivan claims she resisted implementing the accelerated timeline for changes expected by the board. Her keyword is “incremental,’ a word universities know and practice well, for better or worse. Throughout the last 13 noisy days she has argued that rapid changes to the institution would be devastating and unhealthy. These could include everything from closing down some cost-inefficient departments (hello arts!) to investing in new technologies (bring on the online learning infrastructure!).
Dragas comes from the world of business—not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. Her world moves far more quickly than that of a public institution of higher learning. When you fire someone you send out an email saying it has already happened. She has been urging that strategic planning has to be immediate in view of, in her words, “increased enrollment and insufficient resource prioritization.” She should not be surprised by the backlash. If there ever were a lesson in how not to communicate bad news then surely hers is the model example.
Remember the old joke about the military?
The Sergeant turned toward the sleepy-looking soldiers and said, “Platoon, atten-HUT !” They came to attention. “Good morning, men!” he said. “Good morning, sir”, they replied. “Men, today is Mother’s Day, and I hope all of you will be calling home to send your moms a loving thought. In fact, all of you who are fortunate enough to still have a mother who’s alive and well, take two steps forward.
Private Jones: not so fast!”
And not so fast president Sullivan. Apparently well liked by students and faculty, the ousted pres has attracted an enormous following, evidence of which can be seen daily on the lawns of UVa, where crowds of protests have been gathering. Indeed, as of today, there is talk of having her reinstated, a proposal with which she agrees on the condition that Dragas would have to go. It’s a cat fight the media love, to be sure. What happens in Washington doesn’t stay in Washington and so news of the ousting and its after-burner effects have traveled widely, quickly, and with much commentary. Just follow the #UVa tweet feed if you have a few minutes. It’s practically gushing debate.
More significant than professional woman against professional woman, however, are two main themes: university governance and approaches to making change. It might be within the board’s right to oust a president but it better have good and transparent reasons for so doing. The chair of the board’s email about Sullivan came out of the blue. No one had seen it coming or understood why. Students rightly pushed back immediately, demanding an explanation. Ultimately, the university senate voted non-confidence in the board and solidarity with Sullivan. Even Dragas was compelled to apologize for the way things were handled, if not on the decision to let Sullivan go not-so-quietly into her good night. Things have become so heated that the board has had admit to a just-scheduled meeting next week to consider adjustments to the president’s contract.
The politics of governance are so interesting here because so many universities are facing the same kinds of pressures from business-minded members of their boards. Even more familiar to many of us who live in Newfoundland is the latest public statement by the governor of the state of Virginia who has basically said –leave me out of this, at least for now. Of course, he is not out of it. He appointed half of the members of the board and so to dump on them would be to admit the error of his judgment. Tricky. If he wants to be re-elected he’d better listen to the voters who are harsh and demanding about Dragas’s poor leadership.
Is the root of all this the increasing tension between the world and language of the market, with its emphasis on client-customer relations, economic returns, performance indicators, deliverables/outcomes, blah blah blah, and the world and language of the university, with its mission to educate, advance knowledge, serve the public good? Was Sullivan incompetent or just too much social scientist, not Business Admin savvy?
Meanwhile, students in Quebec are planning a huge rally next week, extending their fight against – against what? They are still saying higher tuition fees, but surely it’s bigger than that by now? Maybe they need a good communications plan, too.