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What Happens When Public Universities Are Run by Robber Barons

UVA’s president was fired last week. Why? Ask the corporate bullies who pushed her out.

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When the University of Virginia sought a president to lift it from the ranks of an outstanding undergraduate school to a research powerhouse, while retaining its commitment to students and the enlightenment Jeffersonian traditions on which it was founded, the board selected Sullivan in 2010. She became the first woman to serve as president of UVA, a place she could not have attended as an undergraduate in the 1960s because it was all-male at the time.

The first year of Sullivan’s tenure involved hiring her own staff, provost, and administrative vice president. In her second year she had her team and set about reforming and streamlining the budget system, a process that promised to save money and clarify how money flows from one part of the university to another. This was her top priority. It was also the Board of Visitor’s top priority—at least at the time she was hired. Sullivan was rare among university presidents in that she managed to get every segment of the diverse community and varied stakeholders to buy in to her vision and plan. Everyone bought in, that is, except for a handful of very, very rich people, some of whom happen to be political appointees to the Board of Visitors.

We know from the email Kiernan inadvertently (stupid “reply all” button!) sent to a large group of Darden School supporters that he had plotted to convince many members of the board that Sullivan should go. The Sunday we all found out Sullivan had been forced out, Kiernan wrote in the email, “Several weeks ago I was contacted by two important Virginia alums about working with [Board rector] Helen Dragas on this project, particularly from the standpoint of the search process and the strategic dynamism effort.” Kiernan assured his readers that Sullivan was a very nice person whom he respected. And he reassured them that sharp, trustworthy people were handling the transition process: “And you should be comforted by the fact that both the Rector and Vice Rector, Helen Dragas and Mark Kington are Darden alums,” Kiernan wrote. “Trust me, Helen has things well in hand.”

In her initial letter to the university community and again in a statement later that Sunday, Dragas declined to offer any reason for dismissing Sullivan. One thing we have learned from watching universities in the past year is this: When a university president fails to report a pedophile football coach, it’s a good reason to fire him. But no one, including Dragas has ever even suggested that Sullivan had failed the university financially, ethically, or morally.

“The Board believes that in the rapidly changing and highly pressurized external environment in both health care and in academia, the University needs to remain at the forefront of change,” Dragas wrote in her initial email announcement. I have no idea what that means or why it pertains to Sullivan’s dismissal. I guess it means that stuff is changing. So the university must change. Firing a president is change.

On Monday Dragas, sensing that the university community might want some explanation for such a radical act, sent out a second message: “The Board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation. We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change. The world is simply moving too fast.” 

OK, then. It’s all about pace. I suppose this means the board will appoint a new president every two years. Or maybe more frequently, because that’s the only way to keep up with the pace of change.