What's the Lesson at UVA?

President Teresa Sullivan has been reinstated as president of the University of Virginia. There have been a million theories about why she was asked to resign. Many think economic dynamics and political partisanship are primarily at fault. But based on my own research on trustee decision making, I see common human failings at the heart of this crisis. Understanding these failings is the key to drawing the right lessons from these events.

A few years ago, I concluded a study of 59 public university presidents that analyzed their descriptions of trustee decision making on their campuses, particularly focusing on justifications for moral and ethical breaches. Corruption among trustees ruins trust not only within a campus, but over time between higher education and the broader society as well.

I found many instances, both large and small, of moral and ethical transgressions by trustees. But I also found that trustees rarely intended to act unethically, instead justifying their choices as "win-win propositions" in the best interests of the university. Even the most egregious acts were often covered up by this kind of "justified reasoning."

This is a moral seduction -- a gradual process by which people come to believe more in the fundamental rightness of their own judgments than in the organizational mission as constructed by others. It is a very human process, informed by recent developments in decision theory. As decision makers, we have a number of cognitive biases that cause us to prefer our own judgments over those made by others, and we create rationalizations to justify our desired conclusions.

We also tend to overestimate the value of our own experiences, and to discount the value of the experiences of others, even when they have better information than we do. We tend to access information that is biased in our own favor, and to employ reasoning that suits our needs at the time. And as these decisions progress, we tend to escalate our commitment to existing actions rather than pay the price for a change in course.

The moral seduction process is exacerbated by how we select public university trustees. Trustees are either publically elected or, like UVA, selected by governors. In either case, trustees are selected who are actively connected to political parties. We select business leaders who are attached to firms with financial interests. We select lawyers and financial analysts with professional expertise. We disproportionately select the very wealthy, people who have particular friends, social networks and family considerations. Each of these groups -- business firms, professions, parties, families, and social networks -- create opportunities for moral seduction.

Was there a moral or ethical breach by Helen Dragas or others on the UVA Board of Visitors? Not in my view. One of the primary responsibilities of a board of trustees is to hire and fire the president, and hold him or her to strategic goals they have developed. All of their actions were completely within the legal and ethical purview of a campus governing board. And the board's concerns about state finance and online education are quite real.

There is good evidence now, however, that Dragas, Kington, and other wealthy donors were seduced by their own groupthink. One of the most problematic trustee dynamics is cliques who decide to make decisions on behalf of the rest of the board, without much input or discussion. In the email trail that was released last week, we can see them convincing each other that trends in online education were reaching a point of no return, and that swift action was needed to prevent disaster.

This course of events was exacerbated by the process they used to seek BoV input. By current reports, Dragas and Kington talked individually with board members, moving one by one to convince them that President Sullivan needed to resign. This prevented open discussion that would have aired the potential disadvantages of this course of action or the financial and technology realities facing the campus.

As a result, Dragas and Kington never seemed to have a moment of doubt that they were doing the right thing at the right time. They were supremely overconfident. And their opinions were reconfirmed over time through their interactions with wealthy friends who shared the same underinformed opinions they held.

Is there anything Terry Sullivan could have done to prevent this crisis? It's quite possible. In her own statement she said that, "No matter how accomplished he or she may be, a president cannot read minds. When you choose a new president, tell him or her what you are thinking." She seemed to have no clue what was going on inside the BoV, because they failed to consult with her.

In general there are two things presidents can do to prevent this from occurring. First, effective presidents spend a great deal of time socializing trustees to the current realities of their campuses. Second, through personal connections, effective presidents build strong networks of support among trustees to avoid being blindsided by internal dynamics that can, as in this case, have deleterious consequences for the campus.

I say this not as a criticism of President Sullivan. (Full disclosure: I was acquainted with Sullivan at the University of Michigan, where she spoke twice in my higher education policy class and, later, in her role as provost, forwarded my promotion with tenure to the Board of Regents.) I say this as a potential lesson for higher education leaders. College presidents have a strange relationship with their trustees: They are expected to organize and lead the same people who have the power to fire them at a moment's notice. Some presidents react defensively, seeking only to respond to concerns and contain problems. But in times of crisis, this is often not enough. Proactive efforts are needed to build a network of knowledgeable trustees, and to provide needed space for debate, discussion, and disagreement. Without this kind of open discussion, our human failings become all too clear.

Thankfully, President Sullivan has been reinstated at UVA. But let's learn the right lessons from this crisis.

Michael Bastedo is an associate professor at the University of Michigan. His recent book is The Organization of Higher Education: Managing Colleges for a New Era (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).