Governor Bob McDonnell's kick___ approach to the University of Virginia's crisis should be applauded. Who knows what the situation would be today if not for the governor's leadership and take-no-prisoners approach.
He brought the crisis to a head with an ultimatum to the board last Friday to resolve the situation in the next four days -- or be fired. Gutsy leadership. When the stakes were high, the players were on the fence, the crowd was jeering, and everyone on national TV was watching, the governor defined a goal, set a deadline, and made clear the consequences of not meeting that goal on time.
This week, the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia voted unanimously to reverse the ouster of Teresa Sullivan and reinstate her as the historic institution's president -- a stunning denouement to an unprecedented chain of events on campus. Given the stakes involved and the weight of its initial decision -- for any university, firing a president can be viewed as "crossing the Rubicon" -- the Board was expected to vigorously defend its actions. What gives?
The board was clearly unprepared for the outcry that met Sullivan's forced resignation two weeks ago. Influential donors to the university withdrew their support and indicated that their pocketbooks would stay closed until Sullivan was reinstated. Faculty mobilized against the board, passing votes of no-confidence and threatening mass defection. And students and alumni flooded the governor's office with phone calls, letters, and emails voicing their frustration. The board's attempts to justify its decision ex post only fanned the turmoil, and the governing body was left scrambling for damage control.
The sequence of events that led up to the board's decision to oust Sullivan hardly inspired confidence or trust. The notorious months-long campaign, spearheaded by the board's chairwoman Helen Dragas, involved marginalizing board members viewed as supportive of Sullivan; meeting one-on-one with each of the remaining members to curry support; and finally, a closed door,"emergency" session of the board at which only three members were present to vote Sullivan out. Those kind of maneuvers, critics noted, might pay off or be considered acceptable in the private sector, but they hardly amounted to model governance for a public institution.
The governor kicked ___ , all without telling the board exactly what to do! The board could have stuck to its guns--and it was in fact expected to. But the point is that McDonnell realized a line had to be drawn in the sand -- and quickly. In just two weeks, the University of Virginia had plunged into chaos. Each day that went by without resolution to the leadership crisis had real consequences: another check to the university unwritten; another student declining enrollment; another star faculty member threatening to resign. With or without Sullivan at the helm, the university had to move on. And now it can finally begin to.
This isn't the first time the governor has demonstrated leadership, and it likely won't be the last. But now, as Virginia's flagship university begins to heal and deal with the many tough decisions that undoubtedly lie ahead, it owes a big debt to Bob McDonnell for focusing minds and getting the institution back on track.
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