Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Faculty and Boards of Visitors

One of the great myths of public higher education in Virginia is held by the faculty. They think they make the final decision on anything. The faculty have input on a lot of decisions and sometimes that input is given significant weight by the actual decision makers, the Board of Visitors. One of the things the faculty don’t get to do is decide whether or not the university president is fired. Even though they don’t have final decision authority, faculty members are a valuable and motivated resource to use in making decisions about the mission of a university and how best to achieve that mission.

Another great myth of public higher education in Virginia is held by the Board of Visitors. They think they don't have to worry about faculty views and concerns unless it is convenient to do so. They think the decision style they use running their businesses should be used in their roles of being the final decision authority of their respective colleges and universities. Too many of them believe that once they’ve made a decision, such as coercing a president into resigning, that the rest of the organization should just quietly deal with it and move on. They aren’t used to having their decisions challenged, particularly in public, by those beneath them in the organizational chart.

At the University of Virginia, the Board of Visitors, particularly the rector and vice-rector (fancy academic words for chairman and vice-chairman), screwed up big time.  Those two individuals decided the UVA president needed to go so she’s gone. Maybe they did it the way they did in a misguided effort to minimize public controversy; if so, they really do not understand the academic environment or the deep emotional investment faculty, along with staff and students, have in the well-being of their institution.

Maybe rector Helen Dragas and former vice-rector Mark Kington were bluffing when they told president Teresa Sullivan they had the votes to fire her or, maybe they weren’t.  The way the entire board fell into line when they finally all got together, it seems they weren’t bluffing. Personally, I wish she had forced a meeting with the entire board before giving up to be absolutely sure the votes were there to force her out. Perhaps she didn’t do that because she realized this Board of Visitors was just never going to get it, was never going to understand the differences between running a first class university and running a business.

Complaints by Dragas that Sullivan wasn’t moving fast enough to make changes supports my belief that Dragas just does not understand that running a major university is not like running a business.  Even though the faculty have no legal authority, only a fool would ignore them while making decisions affecting their professional lives and the university as a whole. Any competent change agent will tell you that the people affected by the change have to buy into it. The way you get that buy-in is to involve the affected people in the process from day one even if that involvement is only consultive. Sullivan did that in moving towards useful , successful change at UVA; that got her fired. Let me be clear. Sullivan was fired for using the correct process for bringing about effective, correct, desirable change at the University of Virginia. That process is slow but, any decision process other than absolute dictatorship is slower than a dictator prefers.

The timing of this action by Dragas and Kington does show some understanding of academe. They did it when the presence of faculty and students would be lowest. If that is how they selected the time, they learned that dedication and caring trump vacations and summer jobs.

Today’s issue of Charlottesville’s  The Daily Progress reports that vice-rector Kington resigned right after the BOV appointed Carl Zeithaml (dean of the McIntire School of Commerce) as interim president. He didn’t actually admit he had screwed up but he at least recognizes that healing is needed at UVA.

A potential exodus of talented faculty may be starting. In the same article, The Daily Progress reports that William Wulf (AT&T Professor of Computer Science and University Professor) has resigned. Wulf is quoted as stating in his resignation letter, ”I do not wish to be associated with an institution being as badly run as the current UVA.” Note that few faculty members who can’t find another job will be able to do what Wulf did. 

The ones who do leave will be the best and the brightest, the ones with the skill set that allows them options other than working for an organization they believe to be incompetently or unethically managed. I’m not saying everyone who stays at UVA couldn’t find another job.  I am saying it takes a great deal of moral courage to do what Wulf did. Also, in a faculty as large as UVA’s there are, without doubt, those who will stay because they believe the Board of Visitors did the right thing even if in the wrong way. Others will remain because of a sense of duty to the university, either hoping they can help fix the problems or being resigned to going down with the ship.

There is one thing I am fairly certain of.  Teresa Sullivan will not return as president of the University of Virginia without several more resignations by the Board of Visitors.

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