Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sullivan's Travels

More than the Rotunda is undergoing major change at UVa.
You may be aware that our home base at the Teaching Underground is in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The University of Virginia is no doubt, among the best things about living where we do. The University is dear to the TU, one of us attended as a student and well, one attends as a sports fan.  But our lives and our community are enriched and blessed from its proximity to this great institution.  That is why we were troubled to learn Sunday June 9th that an E-mail from University Rector Helen Dragas ended the tenure of current President Teresa Sullivan.

It remains unclear at this point as to what specifically brought this about.  But the power players who pull the strings at UVa were clearly displeased with something and made Sullivan's tenure remarkably brief.  Maybe she moved too slowly, maybe too fast.  What's for certain is that as more information comes to light things smell worse.  Sullivan became the 8th University President back in August 2010(the office of President was not created until 1904).  I will refrain from speculation but the primary stated reason of "philosophical differences", quoted by Dragas from Sullivan's resignation letter, seems woefully inadequate and should give us pause.  Philisophical Differences...really?  Fired or removed or forced out or resigning, on a Sunday morning forcing an impromptu Board of Visitor Executive Meeting? 

Something in the system has broken.  A change this large should not happen in this way at all.  The praise for President Sullivan has poured in from the governor(who apparently supported her ouster when informed by the board), local media, members of the academic and business community, yet Sullivan is out. Why and how can a shift of this magnitude occur with no public understanding of the process? 

These are trying times for large public universities around the country.  They are not immune from the same issues that plague our K-12 public schools.  Education is transforming into a much more business like landscape and struggling to define itself as we move forward.   It would seem fair to conclude that the individuals making these decisions are to a large degree beyond the reach of the average stakeholder. 

Barring an issue that required privacy I think that the Board of Visitors is obligated to provide more information to all of us who love the University.  Pressure continues to grow for more details but only time will tell whether this happens.  But it must.  How else are we to judge whether or not this is a good or a bad thing.  No matter if the change is good or bad in the long term, it seems a sign of the times and I for one think it is an ominous sign for the future and stability of our educational institutions. 

I had heard Sullivan's name in many corners of life around town over that past 22 months.   One in particular resonated with me.  It was when I heard her comments regarding the Penn State University scandal as we all struggled to come to terms with what had transpired.   I wanted to share some of her words as they caused me to reflect.   The phrases that stuck out to me are in bold.

"We are entrusted daily with the sons and daughters of this Commonwealth and other parts of the world, and we are entrusted daily with the care of patients and their families. We must ensure that we subscribe to the highest values in our interactions with anyone’s children. What is true of our faculty must be true of our staff as well. In doing my own search for the COO and the Provost, I was especially attentive to the issue of character. Both Michael Strine and John Simon are stewards not only of our assets but also of our mission.

I do believe that tone at the top is important, and I have sought to send a message to this community that respect for the individual, doing the right thing, caring for one another and making every decision with consideration for our values are how we will do business. Not everyone will agree with how I enact these values. There are inevitably conflicts between individuals, or disagreements about resource allocation, in which each side will claim that their position is the righteous one and I have been hypocritical.
That is why we need good processes. A good process leads to good decisions because it requires us to call to mind the important considerations that precede the decision. A good hiring process leads us to consider values such as expertise, diversity, and character. A good personnel evaluation process leads us to offer honest feedback about an employee’s performance, just as grading gives us an opportunity to provide feedback to a student.

Finally, individuals may fail and processes may fail. That is why we need good systems."

We must never forget what our true mission is as educators.  Whether a teacher's aide in an elementary classroom, high school teacher,  a college professor or a member of a Board of Visitors at a major University, the more we stray from the reason we are here, the more troubling things are likely to become.  We must move forward but must never forget why and for whom we came to be educators. The farther you are from those affected the easier that is to do.

Local Media Reports on the story
 Daily Progress

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