Thursday, June 14, 2012

Unrest Grows at UVA

The University of Virginia is in crisis.  There can't be any doubt about it.  There seems to be remarkable unity among those who question the Board of Visitor's recent decision to request the resignation of UVA President Teresa Sullivan.  I suspect part of that unity is fed by the personality that Sullivan exposed to the community during her two year tenure at the University.  Sullivan exudes happiness and optimism and seemed to immerse herself in all aspects of UVA from the moment of her arrival.

With a history of experience with very large universities and a research background in sociology, Sullivan's selection in 2010 was initially widely viewed with skepticism by many parts of the University community -- me included.  But Sullivan took steps to meet and greet with all parts of her constituency and soon became a familiar and welcome figure around grounds.  She held meetings with different employee groups, gave frequent talks in small settings, engaged groups that had never been engaged by a UVA President before, and was regularly seen cheering on UVA athletic teams, often alone without the usual entourage that accompanies the University's highest ranking employee.

In short, Sullivan is a very engaging and pleasant person who appeared to genuinely like the University and made herself visible in an apparent effort to reassure the restless that she would do what she could to make UVA a better place.  That has left a residue of goodwill for Teresa Sullivan that the Board of Visitors is going to have a tough time dissipating.

One of the discouraging features of the current public relations debacle is that board minutes do not exhibit any disagreement between Sullivan and the Board over University policy, strategy or vision.  If there are "philosophical differences," then these differences should play out at Board meetings.  UVA is a public institution and the idea behind the legal requirement for open and public meetings is that policy differences should be aired publicly.  One of the bizarre features of the current crisis is that, even now, no one seems to really know what these "philosophical differences" were.

Devil theories abound about why we are where we are, but the truth is more likely that all concerned are trying to do the right thing and genuinely believe the actions they have taken are the correct ones.  I would not buy in to the view that this is some sort of conspiracy at work.  A conspiracy would have handled matters very differently than the strange pattern of events that we are witnessing.  It is far more likely that things weren't thought through adequately and well-intentioned people misread the reaction that would accompany their efforts to improve UVA's future.

But, we are where we are and this is not going away.  It may sound like a ridiculous pipedream, but I would hope that Sullivan can be persuaded to return with perhaps a more formal mandate from the Board and the Board can begin a process to begin to adopt a strategic plan and vision that it feels is appropriate.  Then if  "differences" remain, the Board can take whatever action it feels is appropriate.  Both sides in this fiasco can "win" something if this is handled openly.  Absent some kind of good faith effort to reconcile the current differences between the UVA Board and the greater University community, I am afraid that the current conflict could escalate in directions that the Board may not now envision.

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