As many already know, the past three weeks at UCEA’s home institution, the University of Virginia has been tumultuous to say the least. In quick summary, the Board of Visitors under the leadership of Rector (Chair) Helen Dragas fired President Terry Sullivan. Subsequently, there was an outpouring of support for the deposed President and last Tuesday, the Board of Visitors reversed their position and reinstated President Sullivan, who subsequently accepted the reinstatement. To end the drama, on Friday, Virginia’s Governor, Bob McDonnell reappointed to another term five trustees including the former Rector, Helen Dragas.
Last Tuesday, I was fortunate to be at UVA as a visitor showing my daughter and wife around the grounds as part of a college tour. As we walked around UVA’s Grounds, there were at least a dozen TV vans surrounding the Rotunda and approximately 1500 UVA supporters (mainly faculty, staff, and students). It was a monumental time to witness the end of botched attempt by the Rector to remove the President. When the news came of the reinstatement, I was with my family in the front of the Rotunda taking pictures and a thunderous applaud came from the lawn on the other side. We knew immediately what had transpired. You may ask why am I blogging about this. Well, I believe there are at least several major leadership lessons to be learned. First, you cannot espouse transparency if you do not practice it yourself. Second, gaining broad consensus prior to taking any major action or initiative is impertinent to successful implementation. Third, you better be prepared to articulate clearly the rationale for a major action, especially when it involves removing a popular President or a popular teacher, coach, department chair, etc. And fourth, communication is the key to gaining support for stakeholder buy-in. What other lessons do you think can be taken away from this experience and shared with our students and colleagues?
As Inside Higher Education noted in an online article today, university boards are increasingly taking on Presidents who do not conform to their wishes. Recent examples not only include UVA, but UT-Austin and the U. of Oregon. As the commentators wrote, this is not the last of such activist boards we will see.