Reflections on a Governance Failure

            I write as one of thousands of alumni transfixed by recent events at my alma mater, the University of Virginia (UVA). We have seen our institution’s Board of Visitors (its trustees or governors) suddenly demand the resignation of the university’s popular first female president, Teresa Sullivan, and do so without public meeting or notice, transparency or a clearly stated rationale. Given these circumstances, the university’s deans and many of its faculty, graduates and students were incensed and they have protested strongly for two weeks now, even as the vice rector (vice chair) of the Board, Mark J. Kington and an apparent ally in the process and the chair of the board of the university’s graduate business school’s foundation, Peter Kiernan, have resigned their posts. The still serving president (until August 15) has meanwhile met with the Board and released a thoughtful and measured public statement of what she has sought to accomplish during her two year tenure. The deans and vice presidents have all expressed their support in writing for President Sullivan and the Faculty Senate has taken the extraordinary step of declaring its confidence in the President and lack of confidence in the Board. Yesterday, the Board announced it will meet on Tuesday, June 26, to consider afresh the terms of the president’s appointment and the Washington Post reported this meeting is expected to result in President Sullivan’s reinstatement.

            Today as I write (June 22), many are considering an unrepentant statement outlining the major challenges the university now confronts and suggesting Sullivan is not the person to address them from the rector (Board chair), Helen Dragas, a real estate developer from Virginia Beach, Virginia, who apparently has worked assiduously for some months behind the scenes to engineer the president’s removal. Today, too, the Governor, who has rightly deferred to the Board in this matter, indicated in a statement that “enough is enough” and if the Board does not chart a clear path on Tuesday, he will ask its entire membership to resign. Finally, the rector today offered an apology for the Board’s lack of transparency and failure to follow its own rules in how it undertook this action, but argued simultaneously it was the right step notwithstanding. About the decision process at least, all parties are now agreed, the Board egregiously violated its own protocols in the handling of this affair. That fact alone may be the reason why some Board members have apparently experienced a change of heart. Tuesday should tell the tale and provide a definitive outcome of this sad episode.

            Like many alumni, faculty and current students, I have been unable to understand what so concerned Dragas and her apparently small cohort of fellow critics about Dr. Sullivan’s leadership. This I do know: among other items, the rector has expressed concerns about the pace of change at the university, concerns that UVA has not adopted on-line learning as aggressively as a revenue source as some other prestigious institutions have done and intimated that Sullivan could save money by eliminating unnecessary programs. The president addressed each of these points thoughtfully in her public statement and Dragas has said nothing to suggest she had not previously advised the Board on these topics (indeed, Sullivan had done so in a strategic positioning memorandum) or was injudicious in her recent statement.

            So, like many, I remain at sea on why this debacle has occurred. It has not been good publicity for the university, has created grave concerns about the future for many superb University of Virginia faculty and otherwise proved a very public embarrassment not only to the university, but also to the Commonwealth. Since Dragas and those who helped her press this case behind closed doors have yet to release a specific, convincing substantive rationale to account for their now widely discredited process-related actions, let me speculate on at least three sources of their activities. While I have read all I can find on these events, I stress I have not interviewed principals and have no special “inside” knowledge of events or individuals. Rather, I offer perceptions as I have watched events unfold as an interested observer. I offer these reflections in no special order. The organizational phenomena I identify are not new, but all are lamentable, however frequently they may occur.

            First, I am struck that Dragas and a very small group of board members and alumni apparently decided some months ago to undertake a concerted effort to remove Sullivan. This they did on broadly articulated grounds, such as the need for dynamic leadership and change and for strategic planning and positioning processes. They apparently used these claims as cudgels in behind-the-scenes arguments against the president. Notably, none of these criticisms is specific and all are subject to potentially elastic definitions. When is leadership sufficiently robust to meet the test of “dynamism” or “aggressiveness?” What constitutes proof of the same for those who set themselves up as judge and jurors? These are not so much substantive claims as, at best, evaluative judgments against managerial criteria. They constitute a mantra of managerialism in lieu of a specific agreed upon substantive agenda for addressing delimited challenges. While very common, the substitution of elastic process criteria for substantive exchange and agreement is unlikely to allow any organization to move forward. Managerialism does not constitute a vision.

            Second, the loud and allegedly aggrieved voice will gain attention, at least for a while. Dragas apparently led a concerted barrage of criticism of the president and such rhetoric, unanswered, can often galvanize in the absence of competing information. I do wonder to what extent this form of good old-fashioned steam rolling was at play in this case. It appears more likely since the Board never met together, either in closed or open session, to discuss the president’s alleged shortcomings for the record. Dragas and her allies had the floor, so to speak, for a protracted period, as they sought to unseat the president.

            Finally, the now infamous email from the Darden Graduate Business School Foundation chair Peter Kiernan when the story of the forced resignation broke, in which he sought to explain events to his colleagues and supporters and said, “Trust me, Helen (Dragas, the rector) has matters well in hand” points to another defining characteristic of this episode. One might read this as a political statement, a strategic one or simply as a remark that the rector’s perspective had triumphed. Beyond these possibilities, I see it foremost as an indicator of the hubris with which the group seeking Sullivan’s ouster proceeded. They were certain of their superior wisdom and insight and seemed convinced, too, that the university community would thank them for their action. They did not, as most engaged in countless prior situations of prideful groupthink have not, stop to test their many assumptions or, indeed, to give the “other” in the transaction their due. This is so because to the “in” or “deciding” group, certain of its probity, thoughtfulness and judgment, the answers are already known. These must only be shared with the “other” to put that person (or group) in her (their) proper place. In such cases, just ask those doing the deciding; they will certainly tell you. And as one might expect, Dragas has in fact offered several public statements suggesting to all concerned, and amidst increasing outrage among many stakeholders, in effect, “Trust me, I see matters more clearly than you.” Like so many engaged in hubristic groupthink before her, she apparently did not stop to imagine that she might be perpetrating a profound injustice or to hear alternate points of view. Indeed, so far as I can discern, she is not doing so now.

            So, as I reflect, I am imagining that at least some of the dynamics that led the University to this difficult pass are very well-known organizational anomalies: managerialism as a proposed response to challenges management can never successfully address, attention-garnering attacks on an individual, unit or group when these are not permitted opportunity for rebuttal and in the absence of any real possibility for group testing of assumptions via dialogue with those under assault and, finally, the age-old chestnut of a certainty arising from hubris that clouds judgment, creates groupthink and mars action. All of these familiar phenomena seemed to be at play in the current crisis and their easily recognizable and deeply hurtful consequences are all too familiar. It will take time and sustained effort to rebuild trust between the President and the Board (whoever occupies these roles) and more time and dialogue to build a sense of trust among the faculty in those with responsibility for governing the institution to which they are dedicating their best efforts. And, it will take more time still for the alumni and current students and all those who hold the University of Virginia in high esteem once again to trust in those with governance responsibility for the institution of which they are so fond. This sad case reminds again that trust, like excellence, is hard won and easily lost.