by James A. Bacon
While Teresa Sullivan’s forced resignation came as a shock and surprise to many, the process that led up to it was not sudden. As Rector Helen Dragas stated yesterday during the BoV meeting:
I want to make clear that the Board had a formalized communications process with the President, involving ongoing discussions for an extended period of time on progress toward mutually agreed-upon strategic goals for the University. And we took this action only as a result of there being an overwhelming consensus of the Board to do so, and after all Board members were thoughtfully and individually engaged.
I have criticized Dragas for her handling of the Sullivan resignation, but in retrospect, I’m not sure how she could have handled it differently.
Let me pose a hypothetical question: If you’re the rector of the university and you have problems with the university president, how do you handle the situation?
You don’t make your concerns public… Just as Dragas did not.
You express public support even while you take corrective action privately… Just as Dragas did.
You don’t go public until after the president has resigned, and even then, you mute your criticisms to allow that person to leave with dignity…. Just as Dragas did.
Sullivan’s resignation may have come as a bolt out of the blue to the university community, but the conflict played out behind the scene for months. What’s remarkable is how effectively Dragas and other BoV members kept their reservations confidential rather than undermining Sullivan by leaking their concerns into the public domain. That is to the board’s credit.
I find it unfortunate to see how Sullivan’s supporters have begun the process of vilifying Dragas personally. (A good example appears in the previous post written by one of my illustrious co-bloggers.) It’s one thing to argue that Dragas was wrong to fire Sullivan, it’s another to paint her as rich and privileged (true but irrelevant), out of touch or, as the Blue Virginia blog has speculated, possibly engaged in a conspiracy to enrich an online-education venture backed by Goldman Sachs.
Yes, her justification for her actions have been frustratingly vague, leaving everyone thirsting for a better explanation. But is it really necessary to reveal all the gory details? Wouldn’t that just diminish Sullivan, a woman who has been a good steward of the university even if she’s not the transformational leader the BoV expected?
I think Dragas is doing the best she can in a very difficult situation.
Update: Mike Mulvilhill at CRT/Tanaka lists the major gaffs Dragas committed in handling the Sullivan resignation: lack of transparency, allowing rumors to fill the information void, and responding way too slowly. I have to admit, he’s right on every score. (Hat tip: Chris Bonney.)