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On Monday, June 18, 2012, as thousands of students, faculty, staff, and alumni saluted her with deafening cheers of support, Teresa A. Sullivan, embattled President of the University of Virginia (UVA), made her way across the UVA Lawn at the venerable campus designed by Thomas Jefferson to the Rotunda to address the university’s Board of Visitors whose chair, Rector Helen E. Dragas, had asked for her resignation 10 days earlier without warning, without a formal vote, and without explanation.
Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images
Less than 10 days later, on Tuesday, June 26, 2012, Sullivan again made her way across the Lawn to the Rotunda, with Rector Dragas, to meet with the Board of Visitors that had unanimously reinstated her as President of UVA while thousands of members of the UVA community thundered their approval.
There has been much speculation about why some members of the Board of Visitors—which is appointed by the Governor of Virginia—sought to replace President Sullivan. There are conspiracy theories, of course, as well as more sobering analyses circulating in national news media and cyberspace. Whatever the details, at the core are profound differences in views regarding the shape publicly supported institutions of higher education should take in the future and how great universities can make the necessary transformations while maintaining strong educational foundations. The process of change is always difficult, and President Sullivan had sought to engage the academic community in Charlottesville broadly and openly to set the stage for fiscal accountability, transparency, collaboration, and collective sacrifice where needed. She said:
There has been substantial change on Grounds in the past two years, and this change is laying the groundwork for greater change, carefully planned and executed in collaboration with Vice Presidents and Deans and representatives of the faculty. This is the best, most constructive, most long lasting, and beneficial way to change a university. Until the last ten days, the change at UVA has not been disruptive change, and it has not been high-risk change. Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work. UVA is one of the world’s greatest universities. [See her full statement at chronicle.com/items/biz/pdf/Dr.%20Teresa%20Sullivan%20Board%20
But not everyone sees transformation this way. Rector Dragas, who orchestrated President Sullivan’s resignation, is a wealthy real estate developer in Virginia Beach. Her initial statement contained no comment on President Sullivan, but made reference to the “need for bold and proactive leadership” and “a much faster pace of change.” Additional insight, however, came from Peter Kiernan, a former partner at Goldman Sachs, hedge fund billionaire, and member of the board of the UVA Darden School of Business. According to Siva Vaidhyanathan in an article in Slate, Kiernan resigned suddenly last week from the UVA business school board after emails he wrote claiming to have significantly influenced the process to evict President Sullivan became public (www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/hey_wait_a_minute/2012/06/teresa_sullivan_fired_
In the Slate article, Kiernan is quoted as saying he “was contacted by two important Virginia alums about working with Helen Dragas on this project, particularly from the standpoint of the search process and the strategic dynamism effort.” The what? According to Vaidhyanathan, Kiernan said, “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. These are matters for strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning.”
Another vision of transformation appears to be this “strategic dynamism” which, according to Vaidhyanathan after some research, “appears to be a method of continually altering one’s short-term targets and resource allocation depending on relative changes in environment, the costs of inputs, and the price you can charge for outputs. In management it means…having the ways and the will to shift resources to satisfy general goals via consecutive short-term targets.” Maybe this works for a start-up company or, as Vaidhyanathan suggests, tacking a sailboat toward its destination, but leading a complex major university?
President Sullivan should have a good idea about how to move universities forward after her years guiding two other great public universities as Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Michigan, Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Texas System, and Vice President and Provost at the University of Texas-Austin. One assumes this experience is why Sullivan was chosen by the UVA Board of Visitors as the eighth president of a university founded in 1819 and as its first woman president. Teresa Sullivan could not have been an undergraduate at this great institution because it did not admit women when she attended college, and she was otherwise an outsider to the UVA system when she arrived at the university to begin her tenure as president. However, it is clear from the personal and public support she has received from students, alumni, faculty, administrators, and donors, that Teresa Sullivan is no outsider at UVA today. Rather, she embodies the core values and culture as well as the academic and professional standards of this distinguished university, the first secular private institution of higher education founded in the United States.
The university community Teresa Sullivan leads will continue to face difficult challenges. Whether it is stronger as a result of this fractured moment, or weaker, is not yet known. With Sullivan at its helm, demonstrating the same leadership and character that was visible to the nation as well as to the campus community during this difficult period of uncertainty, UVA has an opportunity to confront the challenges it faces as a scholarly community and secure its future.
As much as we who care deeply about higher education might wish to, we ignore this story at our peril. Public universities face ever diminishing public financial support and the need for increasing private donations. UVA is not the only public university facing these and other major challenges, or the only one whose members are concerned about corporate models of university governance and inappropriate political pressures. As I write, for example, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has been identified as the next president of Purdue University. An enlightened choice? A political and corporate take over? This is yet to be determined. Born three months before Teresa Sullivan, Mitch Daniels was Director of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush prior to becoming governor, and he was Senior Vice President of Eli Lilly and Company in charge of business strategy before entering the public sector. He will soon be president of a major public university.
Knowing Terry, I know she is looking forward to meeting the coming challenges. Knowing higher education in the United States, I know there are many friends, colleagues, and admirers eager to support her and ensure her success. Knowing sociologists, I know that the members and leaders of the American Sociological Association are celebrating the many ways in which Terry’s wisdom has guided our professional organization throughout the years, in good times and bad, through elected positions— Secretary, member of Council, member of the Committee on the Executive Office and Budget, and member of the Committee on Publications—as well as through appointed roles—member of the WEB DuBois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award Committee, member of several Program Committees, and member of the Council’s Task Forces on Advanced Placement in Sociology and on Diversity in ASA.
Terry is known to the discipline of sociology for all her professional achievements—as an outstanding scholar, researcher, and teacher, all of which she continued while serving as a university president, executive vice president, executive vice chancellor, and provost. Terry is also admired by her disciplinary colleagues for her integrity, wisdom, dignity, personal charm, and, of course, her wry and wonderful humor. All these qualities, we believe, will make Terry Sullivan one of the University of Virginia’s great presidents. Campus reactions to the recent events in Charlottesville suggest the UVA faculty, staff and students believe this too.
Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.