it hits the fan in virignia

Last week, Brayden asked about the firing of Teresa Sullivan, the former president of the University of Virginia. Brayden wondered if it was about an argument about the pace of change at Virignia. I thought it was about the conflicts between conservative trustees and the culture of academia.

Turns out that we’re both wrong. Details are emerging about Sullivan’s firing and they aren’t flattering to the Visitors (Viriginia’s name for its trustees). A number of sources argue that it wasn’t merely a dispute over costs, such as cutting small programs. Based on leaked emails, journalists have speculated that a policy about online education was really about letting Goldman Sachs use UVa to promote the online education business.

And it gets worse. A Chronicle of Higher Education reporter posted a PDF of a letter from the governor to the Board. It’s somewhat ambiguous about what should be done about Teresa Sullivan, but the message is clear – resolve this dispute by Tuesday (tommorrow) or the entire Board will hand in its resignation.

Use the comments to predict what will happen, or provide updates.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 25, 2012 at 5:01 am

Posted in education, fabio, leadership

11 Responses

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  1. McDonnell’s threat is not an empty gesture. Washington Post reports he replaced 10 of 11 members of the Virginia Port Authority last year.

    Liked by 1 person


    June 25, 2012 at 5:33 am

  2. The threat is real. But reading the letter, it is not clear what McDonnell wants. Reinstatement for Sullivan? Or maybe it’s a signal. If the governor even suggests this, it is assumed that he’s angry about the decision and definitely wants Sullivan to return.



    June 25, 2012 at 5:44 am

  3. I read McDonnell’s letter as less support for Sullivan than a demand for certainty. After all, the man is on the “long short list” of VP nominees, wants to tout his record on education and competitiveness, and wants to be talking about the economy to get Romney elected in the Fall. This is nothing but a giant distraction, or worse a potentially damaging quagmire that he sees the Governor’s office getting dragged into. But, I have no more knowledge than simply reading what is out there so this is merely speculation.



    June 25, 2012 at 1:24 pm

  4. I agree with Mike. He’s been quoted as saying he doesn’t want to sway the BOV either way, but wants resolution to the turmoil. Everything that is going around the Commonwealth is that the governor understands how detrimental to the VA higher education system this could be (or how much damage it’s already caused), particularly to the prestige of the flagship university (UVA). On the other hand Inside Higher Ed has a piece on the potential role (accidental or not) of one of the VPs in meeting with the BOV that may have led to Sullivan’s ouster: I guess this evening we’ll see how this is resolved…



    June 25, 2012 at 1:41 pm

  5. A lot of folks at UVA think that Sullivan will be reinstated, as the consequences of a decision to the contrary would certainly be continued uproar (at the very least). I’m not so sure. My reading of the McDonnell letter is that he wants certainty one way or the other — he’s embarrassed by the attention this controversy has brought. Keep in mind that he is very interested in raising his national profile.



    June 25, 2012 at 1:53 pm

  6. I think McDonnell’s main priority is to avoid blood on his hands. If Sullivan has the votes to get reinstated, Dragas will have to resign. That way, McDonnell will not have to decide whether or not to reappoint her. At worst in this scenario, if she refuses to resign he can decline to reappoint by saying she doesn’t have the confidence of the Board. On the other hand, if for some strange reason the meeting has been called with Sullivan’s camp miscalculating, and the Board reaffirms their earlier decision, then things are less clear. If the faculty and students continue in open revolt, and public opinion is solidly behind them, McDonnell will face a harder choice. He does not want to end up looking like he is a supporter of the least popular woman in Virginia.

    It’ll also be interesting to see how long the COO keeps his job now that it looks like he may have been the snake in the grass in Sullivan’s camp.

    And most broadly, I can’t say I’m surprised that a lot of what’s at stake here is the opportunity to milk UVa (and by extension, taxpayers) in support of some bullshit Online Education initiative that’s basically guaranteed to be a Win-Win cash transfer scheme for Goldman and similar fellow-travelers.



    June 25, 2012 at 4:02 pm

  7. The more I learn about this, the more ridiculous the whole thing seems. Goldman Sachs seems to be at the center of every evil conspiracy in the US these days. They’ve now taken a controversial but potentially fruitful idea – online education – and revealed it to be just another pond for profit-seeking investment firms. This kind of move could kill whatever enthusiasm academics were starting to feel for the prospect of online education.

    And Darden already suffered from the stigma of being the least intellectually rigorous of the top business schools. They’ve just solidified that reputation with this bone-headed move. What self-respecting serious scholar will ever go to Darden now?


    brayden king

    June 25, 2012 at 5:08 pm

  8. I wonder what Mark Mizruchi would think about this whole incident? His whole thesis is about the declining power of banks in the American economy. As Brayden points out, Goldman is the whack-a-mole of the earliest 21st century.



    June 25, 2012 at 5:17 pm

  9. Actually, as a UVA alum who has been following the situation pretty closely, my understanding is that the Goldman connection was an initially floated theory that looks less likely to be the main factor as more information has come to the surface.

    Rather, the events at UVA seem to have arisen from a confluence of key actors being grounded in different institutional logics and key members of UVA’s board seeking to achieve organizational change through a process poorly suited to such an organization.

    To clarify the first point, it seems that the board became particularly concerned about the resource threat posed by diminishing state support, and at the same time encountered online education as both a possible additional threat and a possible solution. So very much a classic “Marchian” garbage can illustration of agenda setting by key members of the board. At the same time, Sullivan seems to have previously developed a strategic agenda focused largely on addressing key issues around academic reputation amongst peer institutions and teaching quality. While well-received by many, it seems the board viewed this as failing to address the mounting resource threat. At the same time, it sounds like Sullivan was not perceived as giving much credence to online education as a viable solution to the problems. In my view, these disagreements were exacerbated by differences in background and corresponding institutional logics around what drives a university’s success (and survival).

    As for the second point, I think that once the board (or a few key members) decided that UVA needed to make a strategic change of a certain magnitude in the near-term, they then failed to understand the complexity of the politics both within the organization and with key stakeholders. So they executed a very top-down change in management, without attempting to build coalitions with other key stakeholders (faculty, students, alums outside of the largest donors, etc). Given UVA’s strong culture around self-governance, such an approach was perceived as particularly lacking in legitimacy – thereby shifting the uproar away from the content of the change to the process itself.

    We’ll see what happens both regarding this attempted change, as well as with regards to the underlying resource issue. One of the key elephants in the room is that some of the most feasible alternatives for addressing the resource issue are either raising in-state tuition (out of state is already viewed as at the market level) – or accepting a cut in quality (larger classes, less research, etc). Yet I would guess that these alternatives are likely to be quite polarizing amongst different stakeholder groups (e.g., alumni versus the state). Overall, regardless of the outcome on Tuesday, there will be some difficult waters to navigate in the years ahead.



    June 25, 2012 at 7:02 pm

  10. @BLH: Thanks for the extensive comment. When I first heard of this, I thought “board room coup.” At the very least, there’s an institutional logic issue. Immediate ejection of leadership is common in the corporate world, but very uncommon in academia.



    June 25, 2012 at 7:44 pm

  11. Three quick points. First, as far as I can tell this is the origin of the Goldman theory:
    While it’s certainly plausible on its face, no additional supporting evidence seems to have come out in the twelve days since.

    Second, McDonnell may be doing damage control now, but a leaked email from Peter Kiernan, chair of the Darden School Foundation’s board of trustees, suggests that McDonnell actively supported Sullivan’s ouster ( “As you might expect, the decisions involving my modest role in all of this have not been entirely mine to make. As many of you know no major decision of this kind can be made at Virginia without the support and assent of the Governor.”

    Finally, on a more organizational note, Mike Bastedo has done some very relevant work on university governing boards and their relationships with presidents. He’s got a 2009 paper on “moral seduction” that argues that trustees find ways to make self-interested decisions while still seeing themselves as acting in the best interest of the university. If there’s anything to the Goldman/Education Management Corporation theory, that seems like a relevant concept.



    June 25, 2012 at 9:40 pm

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