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U of Virginia Uproar Spotlights Issues of Process, Change

Opinions differ on whether a nation (or university) should be run like a for-profit business or serve some purpose beyond maximizing the bottom line.


Dr. Teresa Sullivan

 “It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it.”

—Thomas Jefferson, University of Virginia founder

Just 16 days after Dr. Teresa Sullivan’s surprising forced resignation as the first female president of the University of Virginia under pressure from the rector and vice-rector of its Board of Visitors, the full board voted unanimously on Tuesday, June 26, to reinstate her.

Mr. Jefferson might have been pleased.

The turmoil that brought UVa to national attention— including its secretive dismissal process, student protests and faculty resignations—drew attention to fundamental issues of purpose and process in higher education today.

It has been described as the battle of the MBAs vs. the PhDs—corporate-style efficiency vs. academic traditions like faculty governance and open debate. It spotlights one woman’s battle to preserve her job, an incremental rather than slash-and-burn strategy of change and the model of educational governance with rather than over.

Jefferson’s innovative vision was to educate leaders for public service, not just teaching and ministry. In politics as in education, opinions differ on whether a nation (or university) should be run like a for-profit business or serve some purpose beyond maximizing the bottom line.

Philosophical differences

Sullivan became UVa president just two years ago. The hiring board charged her with strengthening the university’s academic model. She called its undergraduate program peerless but raised concerns about the reputation of some doctoral programs. Facing the financial challenges of state funding cuts and rising tuition, she developed a plan to give academic deans more budgetary control and accountability.

The UVa Board of Visitors elects its rector (chair) from among its 16 members. Real estate developer Helen Dragas was elected UV’s first woman rector last summer. She pressed the president to slash costs more aggressively in the style of a hardboiled corporate executive.

Dragas and others impatient with Sullivan’s progress challenged her to eliminate academic programs such as classics and German, which were failing to pay their way. Sullivan responded that failure to offer basic arts and sciences would put the school’s reputation at risk.

Another issue was a perceived delay in putting coursework online to reduce students’ time on campus. Most educators agree that the Internet has a place in contemporary education; less clear are the effects of different forms of Internet use on student learning or institutional costs.

Emails between the rector and vice rector included links to news articles about online innovations such as Harvard’s and MIT’s partnership to make certain courses free online. Although providing open courseware is an expense, not a cost-cutter, the rector charged that Sullivan was moving too slowly.

After private conversations with some board members but not a meeting of the full board, the rector and vice rector (who later resigned) paid Sullivan a visit. They told her on a Friday—corporate style—that they had the votes to fire her if she didn’t resign. The email announcing her resignation went out on Sunday, June 10: The campus went ballistic.

Questions of process

One issue was the board’s and rector’s process, which everyone eventually agreed was flawed. Another was Sullivan’s process, which she described as incremental and consultative, which most on campus appreciated and some off campus disdained.

Both issues are part of a larger divide:

  • Should key decisions in higher education be secret and efficient or transparent and deliberative?
  • Is the open clash of ideas a distraction or a virtue?
  • Should change come quickly and decisively from the top down or should it emerge from an inclusive process with stakeholder buy-in?

Alumnus and venture capitalist Peter Kiernan put the argument for the corporate model in an email: “The decision of the Board of Visitors to move in another direction stems from their concern that the governance of the university was not sufficiently tuned to the dramatic changes we all face: funding, Internet, technology advances, the new economic model,” reported The Chronicle of Higher Education on July 2, 2012.

The chair of the Faculty Senate endorsed a different model when he said, “President Sullivan embodies a set of principles and acts on those principles. What are those principles? Honesty, candor, openness, transparency, inclusion, consultation, communication, fairness, dignity, and trust.” The faculty was prepared to embrace change, provided it followed honest and open debate, he said.

Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, wrote that it was “heartening to see an entire educational community rallying behind these kinds of principles and behind intelligent and inclusive leadership.”

Entire community rallying

Many boards and chief administrators have clashed in higher education, and Sullivan would not have been the first to lose her job so quickly. One reason this case captured national headlines was the immediate and vehement reaction by faculty, alumnae, students and staff.

The Faculty Senate voted 68-to-2 for a resolution expressing strong support for Sullivan and lack of confidence in the Board of Visitors. Faculty leaders spoke out and 33 chairs of departments or programs signed a letter of protest.

A massive protest, a vigil and another demonstration drew thousands in the interval between Sullivan’s forced resignation and her reinstatement. A prominent computer science professor resigned, and faculty reported job offers.

An interim president reluctantly accepted the job, but then chose to do nothing until the issue was resolved.

Apparently the uproar took the rector and her associates by surprise. In the private corporate model, after a highprofile corporate board axes the CEO, those who don’t like it move on. They don’t weigh in to try to change the outcome. The only stakeholders are the shareholders who have invested financially. The idea of alumni, donors, students, parents, faculty and staff (in addition to regents, legislators and others) as stakeholders in public higher education has no parallel in the private corporate world.

Reputations of private for-profit corporations rest on the goods or services they produce and the profits they generate. Rarely do they reflect the professional reputations of many individuals throughout the organization.

By contrast, the value of a university—and in the long run even its bottom line—depends heavily on the reputations of its most prominent faculty and alumnae. A school that hemorrhages top scholars soon loses reputation and value. In the wake of the June unrest, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges, UVa’s accrediting agency, raised questions.

Lest anyone think reputation lacks a tie to fiscal reality, consider how students and parents decide how much debt to take on for a degree from a particular school. Consider donor loyalties; between Sullivan’s reinstatement and evening of the following day, the university received $2.5 million in major gifts and nearly $219,000 from 657 donors online in her support.

A cautionary tale?

Some view education as a service industry in which student consumers purchase a private good: the credentials to get a well-paid job. Others see it as a community bound together by the pursuit of knowledge, serving the public by helping students develop the reflection and skills needed to contribute in a meaningful way. The lessons of the tempest at Virginia may be debated as long as perspectives differ on what higher education is all about.

Most parties agree on the need to address financial problems of a tough economy and rising costs. Most agree on the need to grapple with the opportunities and challenges of new technologies.

Sullivan quoted Jefferson’s words mid-fracas: “As new discoveries are made, new truth discovered and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”

We suggest a few additional lessons:

How matters as much as what in public higher education decisions. Institutional health and educational value depend on faculty buy-in. Students learn how to live in the world from the processes they see on campus.

Boards need to distinguish fiscal responsibility from measuring educational success solely by profit or loss. They—and presidents from the private sector—must understand and respect academic values of transparency and consultation, just as academics don’t become presidential candidates until they master budgets and strategic planning.

Being president is a killer job, serving many constituencies that may conflict. ACE’s 2009 survey of provosts and chief academic officers found only 30% aspire to be presidents; women’s interest is 5% less than men’s. To attract and hold an excellent president, a university needs a clear, unified vision of what education is all about.

Hiring and deciding to retain a strong female president are two welcome steps toward making change while preserving the American model of higher education.


Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2012, August). U of Virginia Uproar Spotlights Issues of Process, Change. Women in Higher Education, 21(8), 1-2

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