UVA Starts Board Repair After President Ouster Crisis

The University of Virginia’s board is exploring how to improve its approach to governance in the aftermath of the June crisis that saw President Teresa Sullivan reinstated less than three weeks after her forced resignation.

The Board of Visitors, headed by Rector Helen Dragas, established a committee on governance and engagement and a separate one on strategic planning, the university said in a statement yesterday.

Addressing one of the issues that Dragas raised in her effort to fire the president, Sullivan told the board she would bring a plan for faculty salaries to the group in September. She also said she would start a “Big Data” initiative for research and teaching in the analysis, security and assembly of large quantities of information.

At a retreat in Richmond that ended yesterday, the board discussed how to improve communication among its members and with Sullivan, and how to develop a strategic plan for the college. While calls for Dragas to resign persist, the embattled rector said she won’t step down and believes that the college, founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville, stands ready to take on challenges facing all of higher education.

“All eyes are on us now as we address these issues so actively,” Dragas said in a telephone interview after the meeting ended. “Our entire university community is collectively engaged.”

Strategic Planning

The strategic planning process will help the school address urgent issues that face UVA and many other colleges, such as how to cope with dwindling funds and better implement technology in education, Dragas said in the interview. Stagnant salaries have made it more difficult for the university to recruit and retain top faculty, she said in a June 21 letter to the university community.

“The board looks forward to receiving President Sullivan’s plan for addressing faculty salary issues,” Dragas said in the interview. “It’s wonderful that she’s looking to proactively address it.”

The university recently released hundreds of e-mails in which alumni called for Dragas to resign from the board because of her efforts to unseat Sullivan. Dragas declined to discuss those actions. When asked whether the board supported her at the retreat, Dragas said that they had, and that she has no plans to resign.

“I really, truly believe the issues are too important and I want to be part of the solution,” she said. “It’s always been my desire to contribute to the well-being of the university.”

Campus Roiled

Sullivan was forced to resign June 10, and was reinstated by the board June 26 after protests roiled the campus. In explaining the ouster, Dragas cited a number of institutional challenges that had to be met, such as decreased educational funds, the rise of online education and competition for faculty and student applicants.

The crisis at UVA shined a bright light on the financial, academic and administrative issues that face even the top echelons of U.S. colleges, said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington.

“They’ve raised some serious questions over there about the directions of education and the expenditure of funds in that regard,” she said in a telephone interview. “They’ve set a very good standard in engaging these important issues.”

Educational Ills

The danger is that Sullivan’s failed ouster will obscure or halt the process of trying to deal with the educational ills the board sought to address, Neal said. Many other schools aren’t paying attention to the the funding and educational issues the UVA board brought forth, she said.

“The effort to raise questions of accountability was commendable,” she said. “The process was deplorable.”

Boards are increasingly under pressure to show that their members are engaged and accountable for all the major aspects of their institutions, said Terry MacTaggart, a consultant with the Washington-based Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. A university board member’s most basic responsibility lies in protecting the reputation and integrity of a school, MacTaggart said in a presentation at the Richmond retreat.

“What do you get when that doesn’t happen?” he said. “I have two words for you: Penn State.”

Penn State

The Pennsylvania State University crisis, in which ex-football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of criminal counts connected to child sex abuse over 15 years, occurred when the board failed to oversee all the important facets of the university, MacTaggart said in an interview. While two former top university officials face criminal charges, Penn State’s accreditation is also under review.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges is investigating the attempted ouster of Sullivan at UVA. Such threats to accreditation -- key to universities’ eligibility for government funds -- and reputation because of non-academic issues have put boards on notice, MacTaggart said.

“If there’s anything good to come out of this, it’s that it’s on the minds of every board and they’re asking themselves how to make sure it never happens again,” he said.

Communication between the board, the administration and the faculty appears to have been lacking in the run-up to Sullivan’s ouster, said George Cohen, a UVA law professor and chairman of the faculty senate. While Dragas noted deficiencies in the school’s use of online education, faculty have since produced dozens of examples of the use and experimentation with technology in teaching, he said.

Don’t Assume

“You shouldn’t assume that the things that we cover in board meetings are the only things we’re thinking about,” Sullivan said in the meeting. “It’s impossible for us to convey to you everything we’re thinking about at any one time.”

Cohen said that members of the board’s education policy committee have already asked to speak with him further about teaching issues at the school, which he hadn’t heard of happening before. While the board’s movement toward more transparency and collaboration appears positive, it remains to be seen whether it will take root, he said.

“You could say that these are things that we should have been doing all along,” he said.

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