The Chronicle of Higher Education recently featured an article on the sudden firing – and equally sudden rehiring – of Theresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia. The piece was titled, “UVA’s Painfully Public Lesson in Leadership.”
But the Sullivan saga had nothing to do with leadership – and everything to do with followership. The sequence of events pursuant to the announcement that the governing board had summarily pushed Sullivan from her presidential perch was not initiated by anyone in charge. Rather it was the relentless series of protests from below – by ordinary people without obvious power or authority – that forced the board to eat crow and reverse itself at breakneck speed.
The members of UVA’s governing board failed to appreciate two key contextual components: first, that academic communities are difficult to govern under any circumstances; second, that in the 21st century the likelihood they will take kindly to big decisions made in secret is close to zero.
Whatever Sullivan’s strengths and weaknesses as president, the decision to fire her was abysmal, that is, the process by which the decision was reached was deeply flawed. To all appearances it was hastily reached as opposed to deliberately considered, covert as opposed to overt, and closed as oppose to open. As a result, all hell broke loose. As reported by the Washington Post on June 25, “virtually every conceivable campus constituency” mobilized in Sullivan’s defense, including students, deans, and members of the faculty. Days later, on her way to meet with UVA’s board, Sullivan threaded through a throng of some 2,000 screaming supporters.
There were important issues at stake here, such as what is the role of technology in the way students learn, and at what pace institutions of higher education should create change. But paramount among them is the issue of good governance: what is good governance in higher education at a time when leaders of every stripe are weaker than before and followers are disillusioned and disappointed on the one hand, and entitled and empowered on the other. As Richard Ligon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, put it, boards must understand “that top-down corporate governance doesn’t work in the often frustratingly slow pace of a higher education institutions, even in times like these that seem to mandate prompt responses.”
Higher education has itself been a case in point. Writing in the Chronicle, Jack Stripling points out that there has been “no shortage of presidents who have hit political buzz saws within the past two years,” including those at top schools such as the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. This makes it all the more important that those who are ultimately responsible for governing these institutions – and I refer here to boards, not to chief executive officers – have what I call “contextual intelligence.” For if they remain ignorant of the academic culture, and of patterns of dominance and deference in the 21st century, they will never be able to do what they are charged with doing – serving the academy wisely and well.