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Lessons on Leadership: The University of Virginia Fires a President

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Thomas Jefferson, who once advised his granddaughter to "take things always by their smooth handle," hated personal conflict. Yet the university he founded ran afoul of that advice when its Board of Visitors recently fired the president of the storied institution, Teresa Sullivan, only two years into her five-year contract. The firestorm that erupted has already led to calls from the Faculty Senate for the ouster of the Rector, who chairs the Board; to the resignation of the Vice Rector, who played a key role in the firing; and to the resignation of the chairman of the university's famed Darden School of Business Board of Directors. Two highly regarded professors have quit, and some major donors are threatening to forgo future gifts, hitting the university in its bottom line. Ironically, concern over that bottom line seems to have been part of the board's dissatisfaction with Sullivan, proving once again the law of unintended consequences.

The outgoing president defended herself and her tenure in a strong statement to the Board of Visitors, and the Rector, Helen Dragas, issued a statement containing in part an apology for the way in which she handled the whole thing -- though she did not indicate any need to rethink the decision. Then, as the opposition to the firing mounted, she issued a second statement with, for the first time, some of the reasons for the Board's action.

These three statements say a lot about what went wrong. Different approaches to leadership seem at the core of the debacle.

The seventeen members of the Board of Visitors contain ten who are presidents, CEOs or managing partners of private sector firms. The other seven members include six lawyers and one physician. It should not be surprising, then, that the Rector used a business oriented approach to seeking the president's ouster. She lined up votes through individual consultation with board members and, when she had enough, asked the president to resign. The board never met as a body, and no clear public explanation was given for its decision until nearly two weeks after they made it. Dragas had the votes, and it may be she thought that's all she needed. Were she running a private sector board, she may have been right. Hierarchical leadership styles are the norm in the world of business. She soon found out that this is not the world she inhabits at the University of Virginia. She admitted as much when she said, after anger erupted from many corners, that "our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of thus University."

Public institutions -- and the publics they serve -- demand transparency, open decision-making processes, and consultation. Unlike corporate boards, which can operate with considerable secrecy and without much need for justifying their actions, the officers of public institutions live in a fishbowl.

The manner of Sullivan's ouster was not, however, the only way in which the board seems to have missed the nature of the business they are in. According to Sullivan's statement, her leadership style troubled them. As she put it, her actions in the past two years were those of an "incrementalist." She chose a path "planned and executed in collaboration with Vice Presidents and Deans and representatives of the faculty." Getting even more direct, she noted that "Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work." In short, she would not order change but she would seek to build trust and collaborate. Change would come, Sullivan said. It might take longer, but it would be more effective.

The board seems to have misunderstood this need for collaborative decision making and its attractiveness to faculty and others, at least according to Sullivan. She criticized them for expecting the "historic practice of UVA" to be adopted in cutting the budget. That practice allowed the central administration to direct across-the-board cuts rather than allowing departmental deans to make these decisions. "I undertook to change this approach," she said.

In public institutions -- federal, state, local and university -- collaborative leadership is essential in our world of widely dispersed power and even more widely dispersed information. When everyone can get the facts, everyone wants into the acts. Excluding them is a prescription for conflict, as the University of Virginia board learned.

Yet despite the outpouring of indignation on behalf of Sullivan and support for her reinstatement, it's worth asking what leadership lessons she may have to learn as well. She expressed total surprise at her ouster, which either shows that the board was deceptive as well as secretive in their communication with her over the past two years or that she missed important signals and the need to manage up, not just down, in the university hierarchy. Gaining the trust of those below is necessary but not sufficient at the executive level in any institution. That the board could act as it did, and that most political leaders in the state have stayed on the sidelines since her ouster, suggests that she may have neglected building the external bridges she needed to sustain her program of change.

The university will survive this difficult period. Indeed, at this time, Sullivan may even be getting the votes to be reinstated. Yet UVA's leaders, including Sullivan, would do well to identify the lessons about leadership to be learned from this episode. To view this simply as a struggle for power in which one side prevails would be to violate another Jeffersonian maxim, enshrined in his First Inaugural Address: "error of opinion may be tolerated, where reason is free to combat it."

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