Presidential Politics (College Edition)

I have no special insight into what might have caused Teresa Sullivan's abrupt departure as president of UVA. However, having been a college president for two decades, I do know this: these are not jobs for people with a low tolerance for risk.
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"What's all this nonsense about collegiality? Either you tell the the faculty what to do or we will find someone who can!"

A board member angrily directed those words to me during a heated meeting early in my first year as Trinity's president in 1989. The college was in precarious financial condition and the board wanted dramatic change, including reduction in the number of major programs. I had a plan to reduce the majors, but it required a process that would include discussion with the faculty, and this would take time. When I tried to explain the importance of honoring the conventions of "shared governance," the academic system that requires faculty to have a say in major academic decisions, board members grew agitated and they challenged me to blow past convention to create real change.

23 years later, I'm still Trinity's president, and we are thriving. Along the way, I've managed to make just about everybody mad at me at some point --- sometimes mad enough to want me gone, but fortunately, not all at the same time.

I have no special insight into what dastardly deeds or missed opportunities might have caused Teresa Sullivan's abrupt demise as president of the University of Virginia. However, having been a college president for more than two decades, I do know this: these are not jobs for people with a low tolerance for risk.

After all these years, I still get up in the morning thinking that I have to find some fresh new way to disturb somebody's peace. Contentment -- often cloaked in the guise of tradition -- is a silent disease in the academy, entrenching curricula, programs and pedagogies in ways that defy necessary change to keep up with contemporary learning needs and financial realities. A president must be a change agent. If I do my job right, somebody will always be mad at me. I worry about silence, not shouts. Noise tells me that at least we're engaging change somewhere in the institution. Silence screams stasis, regression, demise.

From all that I've read about the Virginia case thus far, President Sullivan certainly seemed to be engaging change. Her candid private memo about the state of academic programs at UVA aptly illustrates the fact that the strategic imperative of serious academic change is not limited to smaller institutions like Trinity. In today's stringent economic climate, with rising public demands for greater accountability for the outcomes of a college education, even large and prestigious universities must engage dramatic change processes in curricula and programs, pedagogies and delivery systems, financial structure and the organization of the university itself. The issue is not the need for change, but how much and how fast.

Rumors of higher education's glacial approach to change are not totally exaggerated. While some outside of our industry might find it surprising, in fact, the most radical thinkers on many campuses are not the faculty, but rather, the boards of trustees -- especially when faced with deteriorating bottom lines, mountains of debt and innovative competitors. Quite often, boards demand actions that presidents can find daunting: cut academic programs (an issue at play in the UVA case), eliminate sports, end tenure, exalt online learning even though its efficiency and effectiveness are still speculative. Damn the faculty, full speed ahead!

Caught between the fierce demands of the business leaders on the board and the faculty's adamant defense of autonomy and academic freedom, some presidents become paralyzed. Not unlike our national presidential politics, people on both sides dislike dithering and too many efforts to compromise when bold solutions are necessary.

But crafting the right solutions and ensuring the buy-in of those who have to implement them is exactly what effective leadership -- in the academy or corporate life -- is supposed to do. Honoring the academy's notion of shared governance, as I gently explained to my angry trustees so long ago, is not vacillation but a necessary way to ensure the ultimate effectiveness of the desired change.

Fortunately, while my trustees challenged me (and still do) to ensure effective and timely change, their support was firm, and they stood by me during the times of inevitable conflict with faculty and alumnae over the changes we had to make to ensure Trinity's future. I am the agent of the board inside the university, and Trinity's success has depended heavily on our successful partnership.

Boards must understand the balance between challenging and undermining the president. Even more seriously, they must realize that their duty to the institution calls them to exercise utmost prudence in destabilizing the presidenc itself, through clandestine decision-making that betrays the public trust in the board and the institution it serves. If the reports are true that the UVA board allowed its Rector Helen Dragas to make such a momentous decision as firing the president solely on the basis of assessing votes through telephone conversations, without ever calling a board meeting to discuss the issues -- and without giving the president an opportunity to know the accusations -- then the real change that's needed at the University of Virginia must start with the board and governance process.

The late A. Bartlett Giamatti, who was president of Yale University before he became Commissioner of Baseball, once wrote:

"Management is the capacity to handle multiple problems, neutralize various constituencies, motivate personnel; in a college or university, it means hitting as well the actual budget at break-even. Leadership, on the other hand, is an essentially moral act, not -- as in most management -- an essentially protective act. It is the assertion of a vision, not simply the exercise of a style: the moral courage to assert a vision of the institution in the future and the intellectual energy to persuade the community or the culture of the wisdom and validity of the vision. It is to make the vision practicable, and compelling." -A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale University 1978-1986, in A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University (New York: Norton, 1990)

Morally courageous leadership to achieve effective long-term institutional change in a university is a shared enterprise of president, board and faculty together, and even students and alumni who participate in the processes. Each actor has unique responsibilities, and each must be open to the roles of the other without threat, intimidation, or entrenched resistance to the need for change.

Change cannot occur through force of will or imperial fiat. Persuading the academic community to embrace the kinds of change we must achieve -- in curricula and pedagogy, delivery systems, programs and organizational structure -- is the essence of transformational leadership.

By the way, we did eliminate a number of under-enrolled major programs at Trinity back then. It took a few years. But in the end, the faculty made the decisions, and they were the right decisions. I did insist on the change process, but did not simply order the result. Had I imposed my own view and the board's in my first year, I doubt I'd be writing this blog today as Trinity's president.

Over more than two decades as a college president, I have learned that knowing when to drive change very hard, and when to let change processes evolve, is essential to the long-term stability of the institution as well as its leadership. I also have come to know that, done correctly, the change agenda is never complete, and a good change leader must have stamina for the long haul.

By all accounts, President Sullivan is an experienced university leader who understood the changes that had to come, and who was engaged with winning the trust of the faculty who have to do the hard detailed work of academic change. The sadly premature ending of her presidency does not augur well for UVA's ability to find the right kind of change leader for the future. Meanwhile, the damage to the university's reputation -- protecting institutional reputation being among the most important duties of a board -- is considerable and will require a very brave and talented new leader to repair.

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