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Without a Trace

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The University community departs in summer but returns for the fall -- not, however, President Teresa Sullivan, who will resign August 15. The "mutually agreed" decision for Sullivan to resign was announced Sunday morning in a University-wide email distributed by the Board of Visitors. President Sullivan, as quoted in the email, cited a "philosophical difference" between herself and the Board. Rector Helen Dragas repeated the phrase in a press conference Sunday afternoon, the two parties apparently agreeing on very little except the correct choice of euphemism.

After a tight-lipped press conference Sunday,
another University-wide email was sent Monday in a measure to allay the community's growing hunger for explanation. Faculty, students and staff were thus treated to the transcript of comments Dragas made to University vice presidents and deans on Sunday, receiving leftover material instead of anything fresh. After praising President Sullivan, the remarks allude to a host of issues in higher education, including faculty compensation, dwindling state appropriations and digital advancements made by peer institutions.

To decide whether President Sullivan was doing an adequate job is part of the Board's jurisdiction. If she were not, the Board would have been right to give fair notice before working efficiently to make a changing of the guard while school was out for the summer. Unfortunately, this decision remains impossible to assess because it has been so far justified in an oblique and opaque manner.

Very little can be made of Dragas' two emails; if anything, a sort of contradiction emerges. Either the Board and President Sullivan had a broad, philosophical difference -- which should have been vetted in the interview process, before subsequent appointments, high hopes and inaugurations -- or, if there was a specific policy impasse, it should have been duly acknowledged. But just listing the difficulties we all already know does little to explain the ousting of a president. Hence, we agree with the Faculty Senate, which found "the Board's statement inadequate and unsatisfactory" according to an email the Senate sent out Monday.

Appealing for more details, the Senate hoisted its credentials: "As elected representatives of the faculty, we are entitled to a full and candid explanation," its email said. The email also said the Senate plans to meet with the Board when possible, a luxury seldom afforded for the rest of us.

But students also deserve an explanation, if not because we are core constituents of the University community, then at least for the fact that students have a seat on the Board of Visitors in addition to contributing to the process of selecting a new president. If mistakes were made, students should know specifically what the next president ought to improve on, so we can best participate in assessing a new candidate.

Not that any of us should have to flash passes to know why the Board of our University has chosen to part ways with Sullivan after a period of just two years. Ironically, schools such as Stanford and MIT have thrived in a digital market precisely because of transparency -- from open-source projects to free lectures streamed online. In a move allegedly made to keep up with rival institutions, the Board has instead made a closed decision, upsetting the trust of faculty, staff, current and would-be future students, all the while leaving the University cross-eyed, without a vision: headless.

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