Governing Board Structure and the University of Virginia’s Fiasco

Note: This entry is also available on Inside Higher Ed should you need a printable version.


Well, the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors has just voted to rescind their 10 June decision to end President Teresa Sullivan’s employment contract. A photograph of the actual resolution is pasted in to the right, and was sourced here.

There will be, no doubt, much analysis of the decision-making procedures that led to this debacle in university governance, as well as on the structural conditions generating unease in public higher education, especially with respect to world class ‘flagship’ universities. See today’s op-ed, for example, by Jeff Selingo in the New York Times.

The question I’d like to pose is this: what is the most appropriate composition of university governing boards, not just for deliberating about moving forward, but also making potentially high risk decisions regarding policy setting, goal making, overall budgeting, and the hiring and firing of senior leaders? Of course, as noted in today’s meeting in Virginia, decision-making needed to be more strategic and transparent. But who is making the decisions, and is the overall composition of the unit making the decisions optimally configured for the 21st century higher ed landscape?

Now this is an issue I flagged in ‘On the Failure of Legacy Governance at the University of Virginia,’ an entry that generated more traffic than any other entry posted in the history of GlobalHigherEd. To push this issue a little further, what I’d like to do here is post, side by side, information about the nature of the boards of the University of Virginia (UVa) and the University of British Columbia (UBC), two world class universities that are members of the same university consortia (Universitas 21). In terms of respective world university rankings:

Link here to see more about the backgrounds of the current University of British Columbia Board members.

Link here to see more about the backgrounds of the current University of Virginia Board members.

Ask yourself this: which board composition is better placed to understand the context in which policy- and goal-making occurs, budgets can be transformed, and leadership decisions should be considered in? When doing so, though, factor in what UW-Madison’s former chancellor said in today’s New York Times:

“Everybody thinks university presidents are hierarchical and top-down,” said Donna E. Shalala, president of the University of Miami, and a former chancellor of the University of Wisconsin and secretary of health and human services. “But we are not corporate chieftains, and we cannot rule from the sky. We are more like tugboat captains, trying to get our ships aligned and pulling them in the right direction.”

The great research universities, she said, have achieved their dominant position in the world through shared faculty governance, and leaving faculty both academic and research freedom.

“It was a lot easier to run a cabinet department than the University of Wisconsin,” Ms. Shalala said. “There are a lot of different constituencies at a university, and the president cannot be successful without buy-in from all of them.”

As is evident in Virginia, there may be pressures, crises, opportunities, and constraints, but it is simply foolhardy to assume governance systems can and should exclude those being governed, not to mention those being served (including significant student representation given fast rising proportions of revenue via tuition fees). Like it or not, only shared governance and “a diversity of backgrounds” at the university board level, will enhance understandings of organizational dynamics in universities, and enable ideas floated in board contexts to be critically evaluated before decisions occur.

In the end, don’t we need board level policy- and goal-making to occur in a manner than enables realistic and scalable innovation to occur? Wishful or naïve thinking, or even worse loading boards with people who have donated monies to government leaders, cannot but be a recipe for disaster. Legacy-based university governance has a multitude of weaknesses, and we ignore this fact at our peril.

Kris Olds

21 thoughts on “Governing Board Structure and the University of Virginia’s Fiasco

  1. You are so right.but the real question is, how do we get from here to there In a climate of political anger and take-no-prisoners politics?

  2. A board composition that represents the interests of its constituency is a desirable goal. With that in mind, the composition of the University of British Columbia Board of Governors appears to be a better design. However, elected positions may not result in membership with qualifications needed to make sound budget and policy decisions. Appointments at the state level help mitigate that concern. The background information did not provide enough detail to determine if the boards had broad representation across industries essential for balanced decisions. In addition to the process of appointment, term length limits and board size might be a good issues for discussion.

  3. The University of British Columbia Board of Directors also consists of 11 people who are appointed by the Provincial Government in Council. These appointments are at the state level. I think the British Columbia board is a much better design.

  4. I agree Patricia, The British Columbia board is a much better design. It is detailed and with more members. I like the 21 members better than 16 and the members that are involved.

  5. Question: I agree with the author, at least in theory, that “…it is foolhardy to assume governance systems can and should exclude those being governed…” and for purposes of this blog I will take those being governed as students. A student(s) on a governing board is commendable, but tenure will be brief (hopefully, keeping an eye on completion and retention); therefore, how is a governing board to manage when one to three plus seats are somewhat transient in nature?

  6. The governing board selection process by the University of British Columbia provides for selection of a more diverse group. Instead of making decisions based upon hierarchical ranking, the importance of student input, as well as input from faculty and staff is considered. These are all key stakeholders that provide a wealth of knowledge applicable to the decisions that universities make.

  7. Good Day Patrica Rodrigue,

    It’s a pleasure to meet you! My name is Anthony Ettienne-Modeste. Originally, I am from a small island called Grenada, once a British colony. I currently work as a Math Tutor at Windsor High School and Assistant Coach for Women basketball team at Manchester Community College, in Connecticut US. I am currently seeking my M.S in Higher Education at Walden University. Based on my Course Project for my class called Understanding Institutions, I am curious and would like to have a better understanding why you feel The University of British Columbia Board of Directors is a better design than that of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors? I am seeking knowledge to complete my Course Project which involves a provost flowchart for a transfer student and different offices/contact personel the transfer student will have to interact with. Your insight is appreciated. Thanks much in advance!


  8. This great very informative with how the British Columbia Board of Directors and how they are structured it was a breath of fresh air that to me that they have their priorities straight when it comes to high education.

  9. Yes, it is Amanda! As I scrutinize both the British Columbia Board of Directors and University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors its clear that British Columbia Board of Directors is better structured.

  10. Anthony,
    I am in your class. My legal name is Sandra, but I go by Patricia. I like the representation on the British Columbia Board of Directors. I am working at a STEM school and we had some organization problems last year (our first year of operation), so it made me think about the structure and how representation of faculty and all those involved is important.

    What brings you to the United States of America, and how do you like it here?

  11. It seems that the British Columbia Board of Directors is successfull due to the fact that it is clearly defined and involves the institutions leadership.

  12. Hi Patricia,
    I suspected it was you (Sandra) because of the last name but I said, well, I didn’t get a response to my first comments so maybe its not you, Sandra! lol! Nice to chat with you! Well, my family moved to Connecticut, to pursue a better education in the United States. Yes, I also agree with our other classmates, Melodie Gustafson and Amanda, because British Columbia Board of Directors seems to have members who can provide a wealth of knowledge based on variety of different educational background that they bring to a board discussion. Its seems as if this approach has last the test of time because the members of British Columbia Board of Directors connects with their organizational culture because if their diversity of background, unlike the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors. What do you think?


  13. Pingback: University governance: From UBC to the University of Virginia and back | Piece of Mind

  14. Hi Anthony, well said as I agree the British Columbia Board of Directors connects with their organizational culture and therefore has a student and faculty connection. This connection will transfer to other changes that will take place within the culture of their college in the next few years. Therefore University of Virginia’s Board and Visitors need to add more diversity, hire those that are connected to technology and the changing times. What do students and faculty need; it isn’t a want anymore…a need to survive. The concern they should have is if they will survive if they are not willing to bend with the times/society as a whole. It is the knowledge and skills that will take our colleges and univerisities well into the next fifty years. I apprecitate your comment in an earlier post Anthony.
    Wonderful that this post has soooo many comments. Nice.

  15. Both the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors and California’s Board of Regents for the University of California university system resembles the Supreme Court of the United States of America. In as much as all three are exampled by top-heavy political appointments, which represent an attempt at political influence. The structure of the two higher education cultures exists in autonomy, without accountability to the public, which a level of influence prevails. The firing of University of Virginia President, Teresa Sullivan, and subsequent rehiring, smacks of political manipulation, at the expense of leadership at the UV. The question persists, which structure is superior? But I think, a more important query, which system, the University of British Columbia Board of Governors or University of Virginia Board of Visitors provide better governance and response to issues?

  16. Hi Ritchie,

    That is a wonderful question you pose. I think in this instance the system that is in place for the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors works best for the purpose. As you mentioned since the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors works top-heavy with political appointed individual one must assume that their vision must have differ from that of the last school president, Teresa Sullivan. I am not sure if this makes their Board of Governance better in response to issues, if the issues originally revolved around ex-president, Teresa Sullivan.

  17. Hi Melodie,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. As you stated, “What do students and faculty need; it isn’t a want anymore…a need to survive”. The time is now and we as higher education professionals we must begin the implementation processes. As our learning experience at Walden University is the quality learning experience that will be used as a blueprint in the process of enhancing other higher education institutions student quality learning environment.

  18. Anthony,
    I could not agree with you more that Walden University does provide the blueprint to our success. Furthermore, Walden University has been a pleasant experience. I had a bad experiene with University of Phoenix they mislead me into the degree program that I chose a Masters in Psychology. The degree was basic useless.

  19. Anthony, yes, we are the leaders of the 21st century as we look forward, learn from others mistakes and gain the skills and knowledge to guide other institutions into this high quality of learning…the blueprint that will enhance student quality learning environment. It is exciting to be in education. I so enjoy your posts as you bring it all together.

  20. Pingback: A “piece of mind” on university governance revisited | Piece of Mind

  21. This was an interesting read and it hits close to home since I am from Virginia. I haven’t really investigated much in regards to governing boards but now I want to move forward and learn more. It is interesting that a board would rescind a decision that already seemed to be final. How many decisions that have been determined behind closed doors are the general public unaware of?

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