By Mike Mulvihill
For the past week, Thomas Jefferson’s hallowed University of Virginia, with its long-standing honor code, has been called to task in the media (including daily feature articles in the Washington Post , the Wall Street Journal and many other national media outlets), on the Internet, in social media and by its own faculty, staff, students, alumni and donors.
At the core of the brouhaha are some major gaffs in basic crisis communications protocol.
First, the surreptitious firing of the University’s President Teresa Sullivan, the first woman to ever hold the post, concluded a back channeling campaign by the University Rector that was as transparent as a 19th century brick wall.
Second, the reasons the school’s governing board forced Sullivan out were not made public, so rumor filled the empty space where fact should have been made clear by the people behind her ouster. The general consensus is now that the firing was largely because of Sullivan’s unwillingness to consider dramatic program cuts in the face of dwindling resources and for her perceived reluctance to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate chief executive. According to the Wall Street Journal, it would appear a majority of the board “felt Sullivan lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.” As the Journal said, maybe the faculty aren’t publishing enough or graduate students not getting jobs. But classics and German — obscure?
Third, the speed of response was pitifully slow – too little, too late. On Monday, nearly a week after firing Sullivan, as the Board met to begin the process of designating an interim president (with 2,000 protestors outside the famed Rotunda building), University Rector Helen Dragas attempted to help defray public pressure by acknowledging the outrage in a statement that expressed regret for how the Board of Visitors handled the leadership transition.
As reported in today’s online issue of the University of Virginia’s student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, Dragas read a statement saying, “We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this University. For that reason, let me state clearly and unequivocally: you – our U.VA. family – deserved better from this Board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.”
This only after the University’s own Faculty Senate met in emergency session to pass a resolution declaring “no confidence” in the Board of Visitors and asking for the resignation of the Rector and Vice Rector of the Board. Meanwhile, major donors have said they would withhold future contributions. And, U.Va.’s own Honor Committee even labeled the Board’s tight-lipped proceedings “troubling.”
Regardless of your pinion of Sullivan’s performance, the universal tone of the outcry from the University family centers on the total lack of transparency exhibited by the Board of Visitors entrusted with oversight of one of the nation’s premiere public universities (#2 in U.S. News and World Reports annual college rankings). In fact, a fair amount of social media from students state they had no relationship with Sullivan, have little idea if she was doing a good job, but support her because of the process followed in her ouster. (If you’re interested, you can find quite a few catty side bars on the whole mess among the Washington Post’s extensive coverage.)
And if all this is about “business-like” behavior, then what is the business sense in harming reputation, alienating donors and creating a crisis that has caused the Board to expend funds to hire NY PR-firm Hill & Knowlton and be on the hook for a severance package for Sullivan, who is two years into a five-year contract with annual compensation of $680,000?
Can I opt for some obscure majors instead?
Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch