Was the firing of UVA President Sullivan legal?

Press reports suggest that University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan was given the option to resign by Board Chair (“Rector”) Helen Dragas and told if she refused she would be fired. This is a very common approach for boards to take when they want to give a CEO a face saving exit.

But that kind of option is not one for single board member, even a chairman of the board, to offer. Boards only have authority to act collectively. A single board member has no power except that which is expressly delegated to him or her by the board (as in the case where a board member is given a task or responsibility by the board).

The full record of meetings of the board is not available as far as I know and so the question about the process that should be answered can’t be yet: did Dragas indeed have the authority of the board to give Sullivan the choice she was given? The source of that authority (which should have been indeed a decision by the full board) should be made clear.

The other aspect of transparency is the substance behind the process. It might be preferable for boards of major institutions to hold discussions of proposed personnel changes in public, but it doesn’t work that way now and there is nothing unusual therefore in the way the BOV at UVA handled this.

Of course, they clearly were not prepared to be transparent with a clear explanation AFTER they announced the decision and for that there is no excuse. It suggests that they had not really thought this process through. And that in turn undermines their credibility when speaking about the overall change in direction they think the university ought to make.

One is left thinking of the exchange between the Dustin Hoffman character and his father played by Bill Daniels in The Graduate: Gee, son, this all sounds a little half-baked (referring to his son’s idea of marrying the Katherine Ross character); to which Hoffman deadpans, “No, Dad, it’s completely baked.”

Given the importance of the issues in higher education – one might say the crisis in higher education – the way that the BOV handled this will likely make rational debate about this situation much more difficult to undertake.

My union, the AAUP, has issued a statement of support for Sullivan. But Sullivan is not really the issue. The issue is the future of higher education in the US. We need to be thinking creatively and openly about that problem. The AAUP should articulate a new and democratic model of higher education that can serve as an alternative to the neo-corporatism of what is called the RCM model (apparently advocated by the (erstwhile?) left liberal Sullivan as well as her former U. Texas colleague and now UC President Mark Yudof) as well as what might be called the hyper-capitalist “Stanford/MIT” model pushed however inarticulately by the UVA BOV.

One step the AAUP could support would be to reform the governance model now so common on university campuses in order to broaden the debate about how to solve the real problems of the institution. The current AAUP statement when matched against the UVA events and the pace of change washing over the university environment is dated and weak.

Instead of boards of trustees that are made up for the most part of large donors or potential donors, a constituency model should be considered similar to that of organizations like Cal-PERS, the large public sector pension plan. Its board has representatives from the Governor’s office, the legislature and current and future retirees. They work together to articulate a strategy to invest and protect in a socially responsible manner the retirement assets of public employees in California.

There is no reason, for example, that university boards should not include rank and file faculty representatives (including tenure and non-tenure track) as well as staff. Had the UVA BOV had such individuals engaged in the internal debate about the future of a school that is properly lauded as our country’s “public Ivy” this crisis within a crisis might have been avoided.