Back to the Future for UVa

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

June 25, 2012

When I was preparing to leave a vice presidency at Boston University to become president of the University of Hartford in 1977, John Silber, the legendary BU president, dropped by to give me a farewell word of advice. "When you get to Connecticut, the first thing to find out is who really does the hiring and firing," he told me.

Silber was experienced in these matters. As dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, he had crossed the powerful Board of Regents chairman, Frank C. Erwin Jr. In 1970, when Silber would not accede to his will, Erwin told him, "Well, the war's over. I'm just going to have to make you famous by firing you." After one of the most celebrated academic fallouts in Texas history, Silber went on to Boston in 1971.

An impatient agent for change and excellence, he immediately set about challenging everything and everybody on the BU campus. By 1976 stakeholders for the status quo persuaded the chairman of the Board of Trustees, Hans H. Estin, that Silber should go. Estin convened an emergency meeting of the board with a single agenda item: to dismiss the president. But he underestimated Silber, who between Texas and Massachusetts had learned how to count votes. When the poll was tallied, Silber prevailed. It was Estin who would step down. Silber went on to serve for almost three more decades.

Having witnessed the Battle of Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, I never thought I would live to see another university president drive a chairman of the board from office. The power relations have historically been tilted in favor of boards deciding on the tenure of presidents. But I believe we will see the rare reverse of that in Charlottesville, Va.

The University of Virginia's Board of Visitors just reconsidered the ouster of President Teresa A. Sullivan, their deliberations informed by instruction from Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to resolve their governance issues immediately or themselves resign. Rector Helen E. Dragas, having neglected to study history, was obliged to repeat it. The cost of her tuition may be a return to private life.

An adage attributed to the late Columbia University professor Wallace Stanley Sayre, that the politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low, was traditionally understood to characterize disputations of modest proportions transformed into issues of principle in the overheated rhetorical environments of a faculty senate. Events of the magnitude we now witness at UVa are not only unheard of at Mr. Jefferson's university but are also virtually unimaginable in contemporary American higher education.

Frank Erwin, said to be the inspiration for Dallas's J.R. Ewing, could not unilaterally dismiss a Texas dean today any more than Dragas will ultimately be able to oust Sullivan in a Machiavellian two-step. The era in which "faculty teach, students learn, and the governing board runs the university" is history.

The time of larger-than-life university presidents is also mostly behind us. Nicholas Murray Butler at Columbia University and Robert Maynard Hutchins at the University of Chicago are legends, but their epic styles of leadership would not serve them well in the 21st century.

To some extent, because of their historic role in building America, universities rely on symbols that connect them to the rule of law: deliberative decision making and procedural process. As institutions of higher learning emerged from the Middle Ages through to modern times, stakeholder participation empowered all interested parties to contribute to decisions. Faculty unionization and the bureaucratization of many university functions have made all parties of the university more dependent on one another. Boards of universities, particularly boards of public institutions whose budgets are in some measure supported by taxpayers, have a particularly urgent obligation to explain their justifications for major decisions. And there are few decisions more major than hiring or firing of the university's president.

At the same time, as we have seen in corporate America, as well as in the world of politics and academe, presidents and CEO's are also increasingly accountable to their constituents. Explanations for behavior must be given. Charisma and personality will always be a part of leadership, but, more and more, those in charge must explain their decisions. The availability of information has enabled every citizen to challenge a president (I am told by physicians that they are regularly confronted by patients who have looked up their symptoms online.)

Of course, we should not confuse imperious board chairs and presidents with strong individuals who understand accountability. As we saw in the sex-abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University, there are times when courageous administrators should have stepped up to the plate. But that is not the same thing as making unilateral decisions from on high.

The University of Virginia is a long-established, great university. It will put itself right. Steering a university down the road of change takes patience and skill. The Board of Visitors at Virginia asked Sullivan to prepare a three-minute egg. Their mistake was in expecting her to do so in only two minutes—and then dismissing her in an intemperate, inappropriate manner for not rushing the timer. Now that the board has pushed the restart button, she will have a new opportunity to demonstrate her talents and show what she can do.

What lessons do we learn from this sad saga?

1. Silber got in trouble for moving too fast, Sullivan for moving too slow. Best to do it the Goldilocks way: "just right."

2. Openness and full disclosure of ideas and opinions on a university campus are expected. We have to live with transparency and make it work for us.

3. Consideration of diverse points of view is imperative. Whether the thinking comes from the faculty, students, or governing boards, universities rarely if ever march in lockstep. The future belongs to those with a conductor's baton in their hand, rather those with a swagger stick.

4. Never underestimate the power of the media to stir the pot. If you don't want to read about it on the front page or on Facebook, don't send that e-mail (witness the UVa rector's and vice rector's messages about Sullivan, now available to all).

5. Presidents and board chairs are more than figureheads. Their leadership is expressed in many ways: from setting goals and policies to internally representing one campus constituency to another, as well as externally serving as the university's advocate to the world. Leaders must both seek advice and give direction. When my two sons were young, my wife rarely asked the blanket question, "What do you want for dinner?" She gave direction and then sought their advice: "Would you like chicken or eggs tonight?" They chose from a limited menu.

6. It isn't simple when you cry, "Off with their heads!" Don't think no one will notice, especially the person whose head you intend to sever.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus of George Washington University.