The Week in Ethics: Leadership Lessons from UVA’s Governance Crisis

Update: August 14, 2012  University President Teresa Sullivan is interviewed by The Washington Post on lessons learned from her ouster and reinstatement.

Update: On June 29, 2012 Gov. Bob McDonnell made an announcement regarding his appointments to the Board of Visitors, including the reappointment of Helen Dragas.

The June 2012 turmoil at the University of Virginia (UVA) may have had many triggers; but the ultimate breakdown involved polarity thinking,  a very flawed board process, and the capacity to communicate.

Told she lacked the support of trustees (called Board of Visitors) President  Teresa Sullivan was forced to resign June 10, 2012 after 22 months in her job.

Less than three weeks later, the same board voted to reinstate Sullivan after massive displays of campus-wide support for her that criticized a board process that ran counter to UVA’s culture.

However, the issues that drove a small number of business leaders to set in motion Sullivan’s removal haven’t changed.

The conflict between protagonist Rector Helen Dragas (board chair), business leader and UVA alum, who wants bold leadership and rapid change in face of UVA’s (higher education’s) challenges, and Sullivan, favoring incremental change and collaborative process, didn’t disappear when Dragas voted in favor of reinstatement June 26.

Dragas’ term as rector ends July 1, 2012; her reappointment will be the decided by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. If she is reappointed, Sullivan’s commitment to civility may be further tested. If Dragas isn’t, the trend in higher education for more corporate control nonetheless continues.

With each crisis, there are key triggers that, ignored or exacerbated, erupt. For UVA going forward, and other organizations seeking to avoid conflict escalation, here are observations about polarity thinking, board process, and communication to consider.

Creating Polarities

Talking only to like-minded people reinforces a sense of rightness in one’s own point of view, fostering “we” – “they” thinking, when “us” thinking percolates energy needed to tackle tough problems.

I am reminded of Kathryn Schulz’s comment in her Ted Talk: “Trusting too much in feeling you are on the right side of anything can be dangerous.” It can also lead to flawed decisions.

Being in the “rightness” of one’s own position shuts down questions — losing both the capacity to go deeper in the asking of them, and the ability to gain more insight by having to answer them. It derails the spirit needed for collaboration, can foster arrogance and obscures common purpose that can unite organizations. It also tests civility unless, like at UVA, it is deeply engrained in a culture.

Flawed Governance Practices

Operating in secrecy encourages the likelihood of flawed decisions. Dragas’ process was to meet separately with each trustee summarizing others’ reactions as the push to remove Sullivan gained momentum. She did not hold a board meeting .

Even experienced leaders’ cut off from a healthy group process can fail to connect the dots quickly enough to raise the right questions to avoid crises.

Heywood Fralin – business leader and former UVA rector – made the motion to reinstate Sullivan on June 26; in his statement, he said he’d never been presented with facts that convinced him Sullivan should be removed.

While told, as all board members were, that the rector and vice rector would meet with Sullivan to ask for her resignation, he said, “I was not clever enough at the time to confer with other members” to see if at least three would be willing to call a special meeting of the board to discuss the planned action before it happened.”

He believed there was support for a special meeting and a “vigorous discussion” would have avoided the crisis, no matter what they decided.

Fralin apologized to the university community that he didn’t think of this solution sooner. However, when governance works, no board member is put in that situation.

Communication that Creates Mutual Understanding

In Dragas’ statement before the reinstatement vote, she said:  “Prior to these events, there seemed to be a roadblock between the Board’s sense of urgency around our future in a number of critical areas, and the Administration’s response to that urgency.”

How boards deal with real or perceived “roadblocks” determine their effectiveness.

Communication problems are inevitable in trying to resolve complex problems with multiple stakeholders holding different experiences, and thus perspectives. Boards that act as a deus ex machina will not get buy-in or best solutions.

There is no silver bullet. The best solutions will come out of best practice communication processes where debate and disagreement aren’t avoided, but expected in the spirit of supporting a mutually agreed common purpose. The willingness to stay in the conversation builds trust, collaboration, and the opportunity for insights to emerge that forge approaches that create buy in.

Sullivan’s statement, spoke of the problems facing UVA, and all of higher education, saying “change appropriate to our mission is necessary” and requires everyone: “I am heartened by the fact that the events of the past week have created in us a spirit of unity that can help us make the needed improvements more quickly.”

A spirit of unity is fed by how collaboration, good processes, and communication are supported by all stakeholders. A tall order, but far better than the alternatives.

Gael O’Brien       June 28, 2012

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine. Her June 25, 2012 column is Community of Trust Confronts Challenge at University of Virginia

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Explore posts in the same categories: Code of Conduct, Culture, Ethical Behavior, Ethical Leadership, Governance, Integrity, Leadership, Tone at the Top, Transparency, Trust

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One Comment on “The Week in Ethics: Leadership Lessons from UVA’s Governance Crisis”


  1. […] Turmoil at the University of Virginia (UVA) continues around how the Board of Visitors (trustees) is carrying out its authority. In spite of the board’s requesting that the Faculty Senate rescind its June 2012 vote of no confidence in it (for its process in ousting President Teresa Sullivan) the Senate has yet to comply. Sullivan, in her remarks to the board when she was reinstated June 18, 2012  said, “Corporate-style, top down leadership does not work at a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work.” […]


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