UVa's Faculty Leaders Gain New Power After President Is Reinstated

Norm Shafer

The Executive Council of the U. of Virginia's Faculty Senate called for a silent vigil in support of reinstating President Teresa Sullivan, who was ousted by members of the Board of Visitors on June 10.
June 27, 2012

When George M. Cohen took over as chairman of the University of Virginia's Faculty Senate this month, the group wasn't exactly known as a powerbroker on campus. In fact, Mr. Cohen, a law professor here noted for his quiet and steady demeanor, was often asked exactly what the Faculty Senate did.

Even the university's provost, John D. Simon, had been encouraging the senate to be more active. "He said: 'You guys have more power than you think you do,'" Mr. Cohen related.

Now, a day after the senate helped engineer a reversal in the Board of Visitors' decision to force Teresa A. Sullivan from Virginia's presidency, it seems the provost was right. The Faculty Senate here has transformed itself into a major player, the guiding force that galvanized alumni, students, and community members in demanding that the university bring Ms. Sullivan back.

"This is the making of our Faculty Senate," says David W. Breneman, a professor of education economics and public policy who is widely respected here and has been at Virginia since 1995.

That the senate could so quickly become a force to be reckoned with has shocked even faculty leaders themselves. At the beginning of the Sullivan controversy, Mr. Cohen discovered that the group didn't even have the authority to send mass e-mail messages to professors on campus. They were hardly calculating leaders, ready to do battle. But when a battle came to them, they found a way to assemble their voices and fight back.

"We didn't know we could do all this," Mr. Cohen said after the Board of Visitors' unanimous vote to reinstate Ms. Sullivan. He and Gweneth L. West, a former senate chairman and a professor of drama, were giddy with wonder and excitement over what they had helped accomplish as they wandered the lawn here and talked to reporters following Tuesday's vote.

"This is an example for higher education to be watching to see where we go now," Ms. West said. "This really galvanized the faculty in ways we didn't even know were possible."

Comparisons to Harvard

Faculty governance in American higher education has been on the decline for years. Professors have frequently felt left out of decision making as administrators and board members have rushed to make cuts in tight budget times. Leaders often believe the tough decisions they must make to put their institutions on sound financial footing do not lend themselves to governing by consensus.

The victory for professors here at Virginia marks the biggest win for faculty members since Harvard University ousted its president, Lawrence H. Summers, in 2006. Harvard professors had complained bitterly that Mr. Summers failed to listen to them, made biased statements about women's academic abilities, and wasn't shy about berating them in meetings if they disagreed with him. Their no-confidence vote eventually led to his dismissal.

Ms. Sullivan, professors here say, is entirely different from Mr. Summers. She wants to know what professors think, and in her two years here has quickly establishing herself as "a faculty member's president," says Mr. Breneman, who has served as director of the public-policy program at Virginia's Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and was dean of the Curry School of Education. She listens throughout entire faculty meetings without saying a word, he adds. "She isn't full of herself, and she doesn't have to dominate a room."

Ms. Sullivan has made it clear she is not only interested in what professors have to say but that she will include them in the consensus she hopes to gradually build around her ideas. It is this way of operating­—her endorsement of "incremental" change through consultation with various stakeholders, rather than by imposing quick and sweeping solutions—that has put her at odds with the Board of Visitors. But it is also what has so endeared her to the faculty.

Faculty Sounding Board

In fact, Ms Sullivan and Mr. Simon, the provost, were interested enough in getting faculty buy-in for her ideas that Mr. Simon asked Mr. Breneman to spend this summer helping to strengthen the Faculty Senate, says Mr. Breneman. Mr. Simon wanted a strong and reliable faculty voice, a sounding board that he could depend on to react to ideas.

But Mr. Breneman never got a chance to take action on the assignment. The senate sprang to life this month after Ms. Sullivan was pressured to resign. It created a Facebook page, a tool about which Mr. Cohen (who does not have his own, personal Facebook page) still seems a little incredulous. The senate used the page to keep meticulous track of developments in the Sullivan saga and to update people on faculty actions. It was an easy way to broadcast the faculty's vote expressing its "lack of confidence" in the board, as well as to get out the word about rallies and vigils that the senate and other groups held on the campus's famed Lawn over the last couple of weeks.

Just before the start of Tuesday's board meeting to reinstate Ms. Sullivan, it was members of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee who walked out onto the steps of the university's rotunda and quieted the throngs of alumni, professors, and students gathered on the Lawn. The senate leaders asked for 16 minutes of silence, one minute for every day since Ms. Sullivan had resigned.

After the votes were taken and Ms. Sullivan was reinstated, professors and students lingered on the lawn celebrating their victory. Thomas M. Guterbock, director of the university's Center for Survey Research and a professor of sociology, said faculty leaders here "have acquired significant political capital." But he warned, "it is not unlimited or permanent. They have to use it wisely."

And even though faculty leaders may now be bigger players here, he said, the university is facing real challenges that will inevitably result in some decisions faculty members won't like.

Eight Ph.D. students in history were among those who stopped to talk after the board's vote before they slipped off to get beers together. They expressed concern that the university's reputation, and their own once they get onto the academic job market, might be besmirched because of the Sullivan saga.

But they said they considered the vote Tuesday a victory not only for the president but also for faculty members and for the relevance of the liberal arts, which have been singled out for cuts both here and at other institutions.

"It's nice," one of the graduate students said, "to see we can win one for once."