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Some thoughts on the UVA debacle and the future of board leadership

July 3, 2012

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been glued to the news from Charlottesville surrounding the forced resignation and reinstatement of President Sullivan. I followed the #UVA hashtag during the first marathon board meeting to find a replacement, I became a regular reader of the Caviler Daily, and on Tuesday, I watched the livestream Board of Visitors public meeting to reinstate president Sullivan with rapt attention–it was 20 minutes of the best television I’ve seen.

Here’s where I step way out of my expertise and try to make some comments and draw some lessons from this event. Know in advance, aside from a brief 9-month appointment on my Condo Board in Washington DC, my experience with the boards and major institutional leadership is completely lacking, and I’m sure this lack of knowledge is pretty typical among teachers. But this should be fixed. More and more, the success of teachers, administrators and and even boards depends on our interconnectedness.

  • Boards need to be educated: As I read the emails between members of the Board of Vistors obtained by the Caviler Daily, I was stunned to see that a couple of articles about online education from the Wall Street Journal and David Brooks could come as such a surprise a board member that she would feel the need to replace the president. To me, it speaks to a strong need to educate the board on issues in higher education. I think that there is a great opportunity here for school leaders like President Sullivan to give their boards a much more nuanced understanding of these issues by passing along some of her own readings with commentary, having members of the faculty put together short presentations or videos on important issues. In specific regard to online learning, UVA even has one of the founding teachers for Udacity, David Evans, on its faculty—why not have him present a short video describing his experience teaching CS 101 to a hundred thousand students? Sure, the president is super busy, and probably doesn’t have time for this sort of stuff, but if sending along a David Brooks article with a paragraph or two of thoughts can save you from a mutiny, it might be worth it.

    There are a few educational leaders who are doing just this; one is Lee Burns, headmaster for Presbyterian Day School in Memphis, who has decided to “flip his board meetings” and sends homemade videos to his board giving his thoughts on Disrupting Class, and how PDS is working to address issues raised in the book.

  • Boards need to be involved: I bet if you asked a bunch of UVa students on June 1 who Helen Dragas was, they would have no clue. They probably also wouldn’t know what a Rector is, or how they are appointed (I didn’t know any of these things myself). Likewise, I bet if you asked Helen Dragas to name more than the handful of student leaders that she interacts with the board, she almost certainly wouldn’t be able to name any. Students really have no idea what it is that a board does and likewise, most boards have very little understanding of what life is like as a student. And you can say the same thing about faculty; it is rare that a faculty member at most schools gets to see most board members, and even rarer for them to visit a class or sit down with them for a conversation.

    This is why I love the “Faculty Day in a Life” program at Exeter, where board members are invited to Exeter on the day before the board meeting to shadow a faculty member and get to see the life of the school first-hand.

    One other quote struck me as quite profound in Helen Dragas’s remarks at the Board of Visitors meeting to re-instate President Sullivan. Ms. Dragas mentioned some advice she’d gotten from a former professor at UVA reminding her that the Board of Visitors are teachers too. This is an excellent point. What if schools worked to help board members find more ways to serve as teachers?Typically, boards are composed of incredibly accomplished individuals, many of whom are alumni. Why not try to find opportunities to pair board members up with students as mentors, or invite them to teach classes on their fields of expertise? Schools could collect stories from board members of their own experiences with education, how they discovered their vocation as well as the setbacks they faced along the way, and these stories could teach many students invaluable lessons.

    Finally, I learned one more lesson from the failed effort to replace President Sullivan. One of the keys to her survival was the immediate and vociferous support she received from both faculty and students. I don’t think the student body would have been so quick to defend just any president. This leads me to conclude:

  • The first job of any new school leader is to get to know the faculty and student body very well. Many of the news accounts of President Sullivan detail the great lengths she has gone to in order to get to know students, mastering UVA’s culture and enmeshing herself in the daily life of the school—she went to one sporting event of every team, mastered the words to the school’s “Good Old Song” before stepping on campus and encouraged everyone to call her “Terry.” These may seem like tiny gestures, but in a world where university and even independent school leaders can often become “external leaders” focused entirely on travel and fundraising and can be complete unknowns on campus, Sullivan’s dedication to being fully involved in the UVA community is extraordinary, and earned her the love of her students.

    Of course, presidents shouldn’t do this to avoid insurrections from their boards (that likely isn’t going to happen for a long time thanks to the UVA Board of Visitors botched efforts), they should do this because it is quite simply be very best way to lead and grow institution of learning. Students and faculty will collectively push themselves and their school to greater heights if they are led by an empathetic leader who makes an effort to know each of them personally. No matter what goals a president may have, be it recruiting faculty, constructing buildings or fundraising, all of these will be easier with a devoted student and faculty behind you.

All of these insights point to a need for greater transparency and collaboration between students, faculty, the administration, and the board. I think the nature of educational leadership is changing. There is no way for one person, or one board to stay on top of all the developments and make the right decisions to push a school, let alone a university like UVA forward. There is just too much information to deal with, but by working together, sharing information and not leaving all of the power to set the course of an institution in the hands of one leader or a few board members, schools can grow and adapt to whatever challenges may come their way.

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