Theresa Sullivan Redux

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.

One comment

  1. As a former university board of trustees chair, my hope is that many prospective and current trustees read Dr. Kellerman’s statement and take her comments to heart. A sad fact is that all too often trustees are chosen more for their school spirit and the size of their wallet than an understanding of what they are called upon to do and an abiding sense of fiduciary responsibility. Meetings become weekends spent with chums mindlessly reviewing mounds of reports which few have had the time to review and even fewer understand. Many reasons contribute to this, but I see two core issues. First, college and university boards are way too large, some boasting as many as sixty members, making it too easy to hide and fall into the trap of “groupthink.” And second, administration and faculty see boards as necessary evils which should be seen, not heard and, worse yet, all too often not told of matters directly impacting board responsibility. Every trustee’s nightmare is being blindsided by a call from a reporter or a significant donor asking for a comment on a problem heard then and there for the very first time. Will matters like the Theresa Sullivan episode be a thing of the past by sensitizing board members to the nature of life as a trustee through education of their roles? Maybe. But that is sort of like teaching a lawyer how to try a case after he enters the courtroom — a fool’s errand which some unwitting client pays for dearly. Being a college or university trustee is both an honor and a responsibility. The honor should be earned through a demonstrated passion for and understanding of higher education. And the responsibility should be fully understood and evaluated by both the board and the prospect before the invitation is extended. I would urge Dr. Kellerman to submit her comments to AGB or to Inside Higher Education — or both — to get her thoughts more readily directed to those of us who can benefit by them.

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