UVA Board Blunders

By Alan Rudnick

The closest Virginia has to a secular deity is Thomas Jefferson, and Mr. Jefferson’s crowning achievement, the University of Virginia, provides a classic case of botched governance. The Rector (Virginia-ese for a university’s Chairman of the Board) orchestrated the resignation of UVA’s very popular and respected president. As reported in the newspapers, the Rector and Vice Rector spoke privately with most or all members of the board and told the president that the majority of the board would vote to fire her. As soon as the forced resignation became public, negative reaction overwhelmed the campus – and the media. The board’s move was condemned by faculty, UVA’s former president, provost, students, and alumni. Until the crisis was a week old, the Rector and board refused to explain their actions other than on “philosophical differences.” They have now said it involved financial strategies and a push for online education.

Board Blunder 1: Secrecy backfires, and this board operated in secret. In a public non-profit, particularly in which thousands of stakeholders have an emotional attachment, secrecy backfires. No, the press shouldn’t sit in the board room, but the board’s actions require explanation. Non-disclosure breeds rumors. Rumors breed speculation. Speculation makes reasoned decisions impossible.

Board Blunder 2: The board never met, never discussed matters as a group, and never voted. Not good. The president’s firing involved a basic strategic vision for the university as a whole. Not to have the basic exchange of views, discussion, and debate over a critical matter violates basic good practice.

Board Blunder 3: The board appears not to understand its governance role. Newspaper reports, so far not contradicted, indicate that among the philosophical differences is a reshaping of the university’s academic structure. The media has reported a board demand that the university be run more like a corporation. In other words, if something, such as the classics department, can’t pay for itself, get rid of it. However, unlike a profit making company, non-profit boards’ responsibility is to fulfill a mission. Non-profits must, of course, be fiscally responsible. A great university’s mission involves research, scholarship, and teaching – in other words, the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Imposing a corporate model for its own sake threatens the university’s mission.

The UVA situation is front page news in Virginia and has attracted national attention. The university’s academic reputation has been threatened. The Vice Rector has resigned. One week after the brouhaha began, the board has announced it will meet to reconsider the matter. Whatever the final outcome, this board has lost credibility.

Not the way to go.

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