On the Failure of Legacy Governance at the University of Virginia

Please note that this original entry is also available via Inside Higher Ed.

16 June update: one new ‘must read’ is ‘U-Va. board leader wanted Teresa Sullivan to make cuts‘ in the Washington Post. The AAUP also issued a statement (see ‘Governing Board’s Ouster of University of Virginia President‘) on the matter.

17 June update: see Provost John Simon’s address to the Faculty Senate (Cavalier Daily); ‘U-Va. donors threaten to withhold funds over ouster of president‘ (Washington Post); Casteen, Toscano call for Sullivan’s reinstatement (Daily Progress); ‘Is University of Virginia’s ‘reputation gap’ growing?‘ (Washington Post); ‘U-Va. faculty hold raucous meeting over ousted president‘ (Washington Post); Faculty Senate, provost express doubt in Board (Cavalier Daily); Student Board of Visitors member walks back support for handling of Sullivan’s resignation (Cavalier Daily)

19 July update: see ‘Departing President Defends Her ‘Incremental’ Approach to Change at U. of Virginia‘ (Chronicle of Higher Education); Teresa A. Sullivan’s statement defending her approach; ‘Hoo makes the call: UVa president’s ouster centers on disagreement in pace of change (Inside Higher Ed)


15 June

Crises and controversies are almost always useful learning moments, including in the world of higher education. I’m learning much this week while observing a roiling debate about the defacto removal of the University of Virginia‘s President (Teresa A. Sullivan) after a mere two years in her leadership position. I’ve also found this an interesting if uneasy affair to observe following much turmoil here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in AY 2010-2011 about the possible separation of my university from the University of Wisconsin System via a scheme deemed the New Badger Partnership.  The New Badger Partnership involved the creation of whole host of needed flexibilities, as well as a separate Board of Trustees (the equivalent of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors). This too was a roiling debate, which intersected, unfortunately, with the turmoil generated by Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to remove collective bargaining rights from in the public sector. To cut a long story short, our chancellor (Carolyn “Biddy” Martin) resigned after being in her position for just under three years to move to Amherst College, a bittersweet move, no doubt, for someone with genuine affection for UW-Madison.

Being immersed in the middle of huge governance debates makes one sensitive to their destructive elements, but also what they help shed light on. In this entry, I’ll try and flag some key events and resources to track the unfolding of the University of Virginia controversy, but also stand back and draw a few lessons, especially with respect to the governance of US public research universities in an era of austerity.

The official statements about President Sullivan’s removal can be read here:

The decision was announced by Helen E. Dragas, Rector of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors. As noted on the University website:

The Board of Visitors is composed of sixteen voting and one ex-officio non-voting members appointed by the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly, for terms of four years. In addition, at the first regular meeting of the second semester of the academic session each year, on recommendation of the Executive Committee, the Board of Visitors may appoint for a term of one year, a full-time student at the University of Virginia as a nonvoting member of the Board of Visitors. The Rector and Visitors serve as the corporate board for the University of Virginia, and are responsible for the long-term planning of the University. The Board approves the policies and budget of the University, and is entrusted with the preservation of the University’s many traditions, including the Honor System.

Link here for the MANUAL OF THE BOARD OF VISITORS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA 2004 (rev February 23, 2012) for full details on the Board’s “powers and duties,” which includes appointing and removing the University’s President.

Yet, in less than one week, we’ve also seen:

There is ample coverage about the process, and the issues, via this pre-programmed Google search, and these local Virginian news sites:

Twitter is a great resource as well if you use the #UVa or #Sullivan hashtags.

Now, after 11 years here in the US, just as I start to think I’ve figured this country and its higher education institutions out, I get sideswiped yet again. What is surprising about this case?

First, look at the occupations of the 16 members of this key governance unit that the current and most recent Governors have appointed. As the Washington Post also noted:

And most of the 16 voting members of the University of Virginia’s governing board of visitors have given campaign contributions to governors who appointed them. In some cases, donations added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This is a patently unbalanced and inward-oriented board, drawn from a very narrow segment of society. Given this approach to sourcing Board members, the capacity for group think, and an inability to reflect on the larger extra-Virginian context (including outside the US), cannot help but be limited. The homogeneous nature of the Board of Visitors arguably helps to explain how ineffective they are in handling this issue, and understanding how organizations like universities actually function.

Second, and on a related note, where are the faculty and staff voices on this Board? All we see are alumni (almost all business people, doctors and lawyers) and one “full-time student at the University of Virginia as a nonvoting member.” Even the heavily debated Board of Trustees being considered here at UW-Madison was to have 11 members appointed by the Governor, with the remaining 10 members representing multiple UW-­Madison constituencies (faculty, staff, classified staff, alumni, tech transfer).

Third, there is a huge and still growing gap between declining level of public funding for public higher education in the US and the desire of state governments to maintain if not increase their governing power. In the case of the University of Virginia, for example, see these figures (and note the dark red element which is State Appropriations):

Figure 1: SOURCES FOR THE CONSOLIDATED OPERATING EXPENDITURE BUDGET (Source: University of Virginia, 2012-2013 Budget Summary All Divisions)

Figure 2: SOURCES FOR THE ACADEMIC DIVISION OPERATING EXPENDITURE BUDGET (Source: University of Virginia, 2012-2013 Budget Summary All Divisions)

These are important yet very limited proportions of revenue, and they’re not likely to get any larger in the long run. The austerity approach to higher education, so evident in many US states, clearly rules in Virginia.  As the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia noted, in July 2011:

Five consecutive years of general fund (state tax revenue) budget reductions have put the affordability and accessibility of Virginia’s nationally acclaimed system of public higher education at risk. Measurements of the student cost share of education and the cost as a percentage of per capita disposable income at Virginia institutions are both at record high levels (least affordable).

This is also a question that needs to be flagged at the national scale in the US, as is evident in this State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) figure:

And yet despite less than 10% of the University of Virginia’s budget coming from the State, the Governor continues to have the right to appoint 100% of the key governing body (the Board of Visitors), one currently demonstrating breathtakingly bad judgement:

“This is the most egregious case I have ever seen of mismanagement by a governing board,” said Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the prestigious Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell. “It’s secretive, it’s misguided and based on the public statements, there’s no clear rationale.”

I’ll close off with two reflections cum questions to ponder.

First, should the Governor (and the State Government more generally) have the authority to shape governance systems so significantly when at the same time they are demonstrating less and less willingness to fund state universities, including the public flagship university? Yes the University of Virginia has varying degrees of autonomy on multiple levels but the level of State control is immense. And when this control is delegated to a Board of Visitors led by a small number of clearly inept people, risk cannot help but be enhanced, hence the furor underway right now.  The degree to control is captured in these two insightful images from a public December 2011 presentation (slides & handouts) by Aims McGuiness of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) to a Special Task Force on UW Restructuring and Operational Flexibilities currently operating in Wisconsin:


In other words, is the legacy approach to governance — one reflecting a different historical era and a distinctly higher level of commitment to public higher education — appropriate, defensible, and effective?

Second, can the United States as a whole afford the kind of inept governance being demonstrated in Virginia right now? Interestingly, a new report (Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security) was issued yesterday by the National Academy of Sciences. These two segments of text (on page 85) are worth noting:

Support for public research universities is a national challenge of immense importance, since these institutions produce the majority of advanced-degree recipients and basic research for the United States. Any loss of world-class quality for America’s public research institutions seriously damages national prosperity, security, and quality of life. In fact, for many state research universities, the national importance of these institutions is underscored by the fact that their federal support, through student financial aid and research grants, now exceeds state appropriations….

The nation’s public research universities face great risk as the states that support them not only face serious financial challenges due to the recent recession, they also often no longer give priority to the support of graduate education and research. With increasing national and even international mobility of campus-generated knowledge and doctorates, states may support undergraduate education and the goal of broadening access at world-class levels, but they are less inclined to invest in research and graduate education at their public research universities given the uncertainty in their ability to capture the returns on their investments. However, state leaders should realize that a restoration of an adequate level of support for public postsecondary education generally—and their research universities more specifically—remains very much in their long-term interest.

The legacy approach to governance, where so much power is vested in a small and homogeneous governing unit, needs to be debated. When a small cabal of politically-connected insiders get to determine that:

the governance of the University [of Virginia] 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. [my emphasis]

and a leader is dumped so unceremoniously with no transparent debate, a major governance problem exists. Of course there are challenges to be faced, but the University of Virginia’s challenges are no different than the ones facing hundreds of other important public research universities in the world. But as is evident in Virginia, and at the University of Virginia, there is too much at stake to believe that the governance status quo is adequate, not just for someone like Teresa A. Sullivan, but also for the many committed faculty, students and staff associated with their university. And as noted above, governance failures in important universities like Virginia have potential to harm the United States, and indeed the world as a whole given the potential and actual global footprint of these types of universities.

Kris Olds

ps: the video related to Research Universities and the Future of America is worth watching. Ironies abound as well at 46s and 4.29m.

15 thoughts on “On the Failure of Legacy Governance at the University of Virginia

  1. Your reference to hegemonic practices, where normalized practices are defined by the majority, help underscore the power structure determined by a small group of individuals. Previous historical eras have demonstrated different values regarding the importance of recognizing diversity in leadership positions. The first question that you posed, regarding a legacy approach to governance, should be tempered with an understanding those differences and their applicability to the current environment and decision making processes.

  2. Haven’t yet read the NAS’s report, but that video gave me the screaming fantods. The message seems to be (1) that research universities are a precious resource, (2) that they are endangered by defunding, and (3) that multinational corporations can come to their rescue. I agree with premises 1 and 2. Premise 3 makes me want to vomit. And the most plausible explanation I’ve yet heard for Sullivan’s dismissal is that she fell prey to a cabal of corporate interests seeking to bring for-profit, online education to UVA.


  3. No mention of the burgeoning GROSS cost (eg. $ expended per graduate) of higher education in the US? Is the current trend in the cost curve sustainable , under any model of governance? Moreover, should government turn a blind eye to the value proposition of a higher education, both from the perspective of the state, and the individual?

    As for the make-up of the Board, group think is no more avoidable by packing a Board with “feel good” diversity than by other political means. Suffice it to say, it is easier to identify who the stakeholder groups are than who might represent the best interests of the whole — or, equally important, drive an institution to reaching its full potential AND meeting its mission.

    UVA and Virginia have some rather obvious problems. The weaknesses in the governance model were exposed by a coalescing of poor structure, poor process, bad judgment, lapses in integrity, and resistance to change aided by poor leadership. The VoB can be “fixed”. If that is all that is learned, this wasn’t a teaching moment… just a colossal train wreck.

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  5. For more incisive coverage than is found in the local news sources named, please refer to one of two of our excellent, independent weeklies in Charlottesville, The Hook. They frequently are the place to get the real scoop when the mainstream reporting merely ‘hovers.’

  6. Has anyone noticed how a certain kind of leader precipitates a “crisis” and gins up an “emergency” in order to address long-term strategic problems? (Or promulgates an “emergency law,” like South Africa, Egypt, et al.? You know, a certain kind of leader.)

    The University of Virginia’s “secret emergency” in itself is not without precedent in some universities’ politics. Once upon a time, I was the titular head of a campus organization, literally its “CEO” as the by-laws read, and chair of a governing board. Our executive director (the real CEO), nominally serving under the board (note, not under me) did not like a manager I supported, and, lo and behold, soon we had a secret emergency! First it was unusual types arriving on the staff full of advice (to me) that “you’re not CEO!” and advice regarding the propriety of our governance structure (the real CEO had plenty of time to object to it the previous year when it was ratified, but did not), followed by advice about how “we needed to carry out a national talent search” for the part-time, ill-paid manager we had just hired. Further advice got these people in hot water when they offered that students–then 2/3 of the staff–did not belong in this university organization.

    That’s when poetry began appearing on the walls about them. And that’s when our secret emergency began in earnest.

    Secretly our CEO collaborated with university officials to gain support to take over our Board of Directors–and secretly, supported by two instances of lying to me about additions desired for our agenda, or time extensions required for the CEO’s report–a huge bill of particulars (all false excluding one legitimate governance structure concern) was delivered a week after being delivered to a friendly university administrator, blind-siding me and the Board and setting off a nine-month-long crisis of management and governance that left the organization’s reputation damaged and the staff traumatized. Not a single recommendation in this bill of particulars ended up being adopted, because the CEO’s university supporters soon saw that the complaints supporting them were false. Worse, some of the accusations in this bill of particulars, unbeknownst to the CEO, were more properly lodged against one of his own supporters.

    It was a disaster for nothing! And the legacy our CEO sought to confirm by imprinting his decisions on the organization backfired, when two years later a (conservative) student, cognizant of the fight over student involvement that developed, harassed our CEO’s successor until he quit.

    The ultimate cause of this secret emergency was the adoption of by-laws that replaced a self-selected management board with a board of directors featuring elected staff members–more representative but not conformant with conventions of nonprofit governance.

    This secret emergency and public disaster was entirely unnecessary, entirely the result of one person’s personal anxiety about control (and the quest for closed, oligarchical governance)–and entirely provincial, occurring at a remote university in the middle of nowhere. In the scheme of things it is not important.

    But the present disaster at UVA, caused by its governing board, very apparently unnecessary, and with the potential to be proportionately as damaging to the institution, brings back deeply unpleasant ghosts for me. This is how tinpot dictators operate–creating secret emergencies to excuse personally motivated power grabs, to spring them under false pretenses and make them _faits accomplis_; and, where necessary, to recruit authority from above (the Attorney General and Governor, here) to ratify what written law forbids.

    NB: declining to reverse an illegal action amounts to complicity in it.

    At universities, these actions tend quite curiously to happen in the summertime.

    If this action by the UVA Board of Visitors were meritorious, it would have been promulgated with due notice, not under emergency rules. Prima facie it is not legitimate. It is a deep disgrace–unworthy of the institution in whose name it is enacted.

    Perhaps it is the face of the new oligarchy, though. From another country now ruled by oligarchy:

    Offered with repudiation of the sentiments (elsewhere?) expressed by the band featured in the cited video. But the mood is about right.

    -Not a CEO

  7. My favorite morally obtuse quote from the 6/17 WaPo article: “But governing boards are authorized to remove university presidents on their own authority. Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, traced the Charlottesville protests to “an academic culture that isn’t accustomed to seeing boards doing anything other than rubber-stamp.”

    Because things like this ought to happen much more often, right?

    And now we know that Ms. Neal and ACTA are hostile to the “academic culture” of the universities they serve, and any president unwilling to put German and the Classics onto the pyre is going to get fired without discussion.

  8. I do not know that much about research universitites, but it seems that if these types of universities are important for the well being of the U.S. why would the VoB want to cut more? Also, meeting of thtis importance you would think would envolve everyone, not just a select few.

  9. I agree that issues at UVA have the potential to hurt all of higher education in the US. I’ve always believed that governance needs to include more voices that just a small group. I mostly feel this way because small groups tend to isolate themselves from the day-to-day operations of an organization, leaving more issues about their understanding of the organizations status. Hopefully this will serve as a lesson to US higher education.

  10. I know research universities have a prestige label on them and they do great things for our economy and culture. So it is amazing to read this article to realize how governing boards make their decisions for the stakeholders.

  11. Clearly this board has no clue what their jobs entail and seem to have forgotten what their duty is to the institution. In this day and age of trying to be as diverse as possible I just do not understand how this board was even allowed to exist without great protest. On the note of reduced state funding but increased state oversight, my state is in one of the high control catagories on the chart above. Luckily, we do have diversity on our board, but there are other control measures the government pushes on us that are rediculous when you consider how much funding we get from them. The hard part is, what to do about it? You do not want to refuse their funding and go private because what if someday the economy turns around and they decide to increase your funding again. It is a difficult delima.

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  13. I was surprised that their was only a 3% increase in tuition allocated for tuition. I would think that with how much tuition increases each year, more money would be budgeted for tuition.

  14. University control and governance. Who determines presidential leadership in the twenty-first century? Governance’s impact and is impacted on multiple levels. The removal of a college president must not be taken lightly. Forces outside of everyday governance at colleges and universities must consider the impact of decisions upon students. The removal of Teresa Sullivan in many ways shows the disregard by higher powers in higher education for process, and continuity in the education process. Theories abound about the removal Teresa Sullivan, but motivation will always come into question. After so short a time as president of University of Virginia, why was her removal deemed a necessary action? Outsides may never know. Politics may well have played a part in the decision. However, cronyism continues to be alive and well in higher education, especially among state governments. Issues surrounding removal of a college president will not go away soon. However, institutions must continue to serve the needs of students, and find ways to improve delivery of quality education. That requires confidence in stable systems. Virginia’s system of college governance may not inspire confidence in its ability at a core level, to provide leadership in the twenty-first century.

  15. I was amazed to see how virtually the entire Board of Visitors have made contributed to the campaigns of the Governor’s who appointed them. This is a prime example of what is so wrong with higher education at all levels in America today: politics. From local school boards who change superintendents every year, to these higher ed boards laced with the friends and donors of politicians, education and our future continues to suffer because we can’t separate them from our politics. There seems to be a clear conflict of interest with shared governance if the Boards who select campus leaders are given marching orders from the Governor who gave them their seats?

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