Leadership Lessons Learned from the University of Virginia Debacle


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How many people from Virginia does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: three. One to change the bulb, and two to talk about how good the old one used to be.

As a proud resident of Virginia for over five decades, I find that self-deprecating humor well-earned. For proof, visit Old Town Alexandria, just across the Potomac River from our nation’s capital, to see the city’s statue of a lone Confederate soldier standing smack dab in the middle of its busiest intersection. Not coincidentally, his back squarely faces north. And if you can’t recall the name of any southern Civil War personality except Robert E. Lee, take a trip down Richmond’s Monument Avenue, where you’ll see statues of Stonewall Jackson, JEB Stuart, and Jefferson Davis, larger than life.

If you’re looking for fast-paced change, you’re slightly more likely to find it in Riyadh than in Richmond. Virginia is for lovers, not changers. Against this backdrop, the recent tumult at the University of Virginia over the recent firing—and rehiring—of its president, Teresa Sullivan, seems perfectly bizarre.

UVa’s leadership drama attracted widespread attention, and the topic made Twitter’s top trending ideas on June 26th, embedded on a list that included #KatyPerryPremiere, Farmville 2, and Adam Oates. If you haven’t kept up with the story, it began to unfold in late May of this year, but I’ll pick it up beginning June 10th, when the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors abruptly announced it had asked Dr. Sullivan to resign her post as UVa President, after serving less than two years.

Scant information was offered. The ostensible reason for Dr. Sullivan’s firing? President Sullivan (Terry, as she is popularly known) advocated for “incremental change” when Helen Dragas, Rector of the university’s Board of Visitors, and others felt urgency to shake up the status quo. Sixteen days later, on Tuesday, June 26th, the board reinstated Sullivan to her position by a unanimous vote. Now that’s a story!

I’ve shared the almost-beginning and the non-end, leaving out the fascinating middle. If you want to read the timeline and see the full cast of characters, click here.

“Exhibit A of this plainly dysfunctional system is, of course, Helen E. Dragas, who is UVa’s rector and, thus, the board’s chairman. She was utterly and properly humiliated Tuesday (June 26) with the reversal of her grossly mismanaged effort to oust the university’s president,” Robert McCartney wrote in The Washington Post on June 28.

“By all accounts, Dragas is a smart, effective businesswoman, known in particular for her tough-minded resolve, but she needlessly threw the university into turmoil when she failed to respect two rather fundamental rules of good business practice: know your market, and communicate effectively.”

As much as anything, this story proves once again that intelligent adults in powerful positions are capable of exercising incredibly poor judgment, and can make huge mistakes. Gaffes that might seem obvious to avoid for some were hidden traps to others. The biggest lessons learned:

1. Be open. The board’s action was shrouded in secrecy. When President Sullivan’s resignation was announced on June 10th, the reasons were vague. The abruptness of the Board’s action begged the question of whether Dr. Sullivan had a heretofore unknown defect, rendering her unable to lead—like falsifying her academic credentials, or running a clandestine child labor pool. But those reasons weren’t there, and there was little detail given, other than citing “philosophical differences” with the board. “We see no evidence that President Sullivan is unwilling or unable to make the necessary adjustments and lead us through necessary change,” Faculty Senate chair George Cohen said later.

2. Be honest. “It quickly became clear that Dragas and her allies had portrayed the board’s view (to terminate Sullivan) as unanimous when in fact some members were supportive of the president and no full board meeting was held to discuss (Sullivan’s) ouster,” according to an account published in The Washington Post.

3. Build consensus. Few people acting on behalf of many presents a very slippery slope. In another Washington Post article (UVa Board Reinstates Sullivan, June 27, 2012), “Sullivan’s removal was unusual in that board members appear to have acted alone—and against a president with unusually broad support among faculty, alumni, state leaders and students.”

4. Be timely. It took Rector Dragas over ten days to lift the veil on the “philosophical differences” that inspired the board’s draconian action. In an email dated June 22, Dragas began: “In my statement to the Board on Monday, I conveyed my heartfelt apologies for the pain, anger and confusion that has swept the Grounds (campus) over the last 10 days, and said that the UVa family deserved better from your Board,” adding, “The bottom line is the days of incremental decision-making in higher education are over, or should be.” In the same email, she provided a “partial list” of needed changes that included ten issues that should have been aired earlier.

5. Have a solid argument. “. . . Dragas never built a credible case. Sullivan sought to bring change from the ground up, through a process of building consensus and empowering individual academic units. Dragas and her allies thought Sullivan was moving too slowly in an economic climate that demanded swift action.” But specifics that could have better explained the board’s move never materialized.

6. In some organizations, a swift kick in the pants motivates people, but the same action can backfire elsewhere. “The most likely explanation for the rector’s missteps is simply that she handled the matter unilaterally much as she would shove through a decision at her firm, Dragas Co’s. Somewhere along the way, she forgot that a university works differently from a condominium builder,” McCartney wrote.

7. Anticipate that others will object, possibly strenuously. The overwhelming anger directed toward the board rendered them deer in the headlights.

8. In a time of leadership crisis, the power of community and connections cannot be underestimated. A June 27th email from Carl Zeithaml, Dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, who offered to become the university’s interim president, expresses this idea most eloquently. “The only reason that I survived some of the more challenging moments was the unwavering and unconditional support of my family, friends, and colleagues. It was both humbling and inspiring, and I deeply appreciate every message and action to support me.” Dr. Sullivan would probably agree.

Following the decision to reinstate Dr. Sullivan this Tuesday, Virginia’s Governor Bob McDonnell said “There has been too little transparency; too much vitriol. Too little discussion; too much blame . . . The statements made today by board members and President Sullivan were poignant and gracious and set the right tone for collaboration ahead.” UVa Professor Allen Lynch took a similar–if more succinct–slant, “You have two different cultures represented here, academic and corporate, and there was a failure to communicate.”

Kiss, hug, and make up. But is that the end of the story? Will UVa and its community once again become one big, happy blue and orange family? That will require patience, maturity, and a keen understanding of the missteps that created this debacle, and the will to never repeat them. We can. In the last fifty years, Virginia has moved from 38th to 7th in per capita income among states—no minor feat. We might need three people to change a light bulb, and we’re getting better at knowing when to change. But we can always improve on how it’s done.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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