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

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.