The University of Virginia Board of Visitors ousting of former university president Teresa Sullivan was a public relations disaster. Like many crisis situations it was completely self-inflicted. The board has every right to hire and fire presidents but public opinion tends to turn quickly when such action is done behind closed doors and outside the normal procedures.
The leader of the board, Rector Helen Dragas is all about quick, “shoot from the hip” action. Meanwhile, Sullivan’s approach is more about incremental action and measured results. It was this divergent style of management -and communications – that led to Sullivan’s firing.
In a prepared statement Dragas said, “We certainly never wished nor intended to ignite such a reaction from the community of trust and honor that we all love so dearly. You — our U-Va. family — deserved better from this board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.” However, Dragas was unwavering in her decision, “The Board of Visitors exists to make these kinds of judgments on behalf of all the constituencies of the university. . . . Simply put, we have the responsibility, on behalf of the entire community, to make these important and often difficult calls.”
Sullivan made a statement to the board in her own defense and the measured steps her administration has taken over the past two years. “I have been described as an incrementalist. It is true. Sweeping action may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership, but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear.”
To the end, Sullivan maintained her position on the high road. Her comments, like her style for which she was fired, were thoughtful and measured.
While UVA succeeded in firing Sullivan it has lost a great deal of credibility among the university community. Like most crises this will likely have a major negative affect on the university’s bottom line – an unintended consequence if you will. The alumni, students (future alumni) faculty and contributors are up in arms and demanding changes in the board. Repairing confidence in the university community is essential for the board. UVA’s reputation, ability to maintain contributions, attractiveness to incoming students and retaining its faculty all depend on how the university board controls the fallout. This will require a well thought out strategic communications plan that addresses all audiences.
However, the focus going forward may be on Dragas who at this time may need to rely on her quick action just to survive.