With a sense of genius exceeded only by the decision of Gen. George Armstrong Custer to conduct a raid on some sleepy Indian villages – and then discover that he had dropped in on the largest gathering of Native American warriors in recorded history – did the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia decide all by itself to sack the incumbent president.
How’d that work out for you, Gen. Custer? Members of the Board of Visitors?
(Pictured above Left to Right: General Custer and BOV leader Helen E. Dragas)
The president, Teresa Sullivan, has been reconfirmed as president by a unanimous vote of the same board that had agreed, in secret, to dump her, apparently by just about the same lopsided margin. Real profiles in courage there.
I love intellectual car wrecks and so I couldn’t take my eyes off of this one. Sullivan is a woman described in The Washington Post article as a president who had given her bosses a strategic plan for the future, attended both major and minor campus sports events, and visited sick students in the hospital. Clearly she had to go.
Talk about a one-car crash on a clear day with no traffic in sight!
The BOV is led by Helen E. Dragas, a real estate executive with a – previous – reputation as analytical. What fascinates me in the Virginia disaster is the degree to which the Board – mainly business people from the “real” world – managed to voluntarily hit themselves over the head by violating every common-sense rule of management: they met in secret, never took a formal vote, never even met as a group and managed to define themselves as out of touch with one of their two constituents – the university community. The other “constituent” is the future, and concern for it is a legitimate exercise of the Board’s responsibility. Supposedly they wanted more and faster change, more donations, more online education (you know, like the big boys at Harvard and MIT), more of everything.
But, oh, by the way, where was the “evidence” justifying throwing Sullivan under the bus? Lemme get back to you.
Ms. Dragas hasn’t done too well in the image department, either, with some bloggers speculating as to whether her interest in online education had more than a theoretical basis. No evidence has surfaced in that direction, but when you walk down this road, all kinds of gremlins follow you.
There is a clash of cultures here, which news organizations have witnessed all too frequently. The “old” way of doing things is deemed too slow and inefficient in the modern world. The new leaders, or owners, are going to come in and clean out the place. Reporters will now promote events close to the heart of the publisher. Writers will become their own brand. We’ll curate thousands of posts produced by others … and, by the way, we’ll get back to the core values of journalism soon.
Down at Mr. Jefferson’s university (we can return to the phrase now that the effort to cut Sullivan off at the knees has stopped), there was a real culture, which the culturally insular BOV hilariously misread – the students, faculty, researchers, donors and plain citizens.
The good guys in this are Sullivan, who kept her cool, and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who told the board they had a week to figure it all out by Tuesday June 26 or they’d all be dismissed. For a conservative who doesn’t like government getting involved in these things, he is one stand-up dude.
Higher education faces many challenges, as does any organization facing declining revenues, increased costs, a move to the internet and international competition. The question of how fast you move to make changes, and what changes you make, are legitimate and important questions, and the BOV was right to consider them. Schools like UVA – or journalists in a newsroom – just shouldn’t get slimed because some outsider gets a bright idea.
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