Barely two years into her term, the president of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, was asked to resign because she had not instilled board confidence about her ability to plan effectively for the university’s future (planning was referenced in Rector Helen Dragas’ statement, which also identified the need for “bold and proactive leadership”).
Then, almost three weeks later, following faculty, student and alumni protests, and with an interim president already identified, she was reinstated by the Board of Visitors.
What a discordant cacophony resounded across the country.
But contrary to countless media reports, the positions of both sides were valid.
Increasingly concerned about ominous funding forecasts and inspired by enlightened new programs at a number of prestigious institutions (Harvard, MIT, Stanford), the board asked the president to resign, as was within its authority. In another sense, however, the board did the right thing the wrong way. Its action was contrary to the spirit of the 1966 American Association of University Presidents’ statement on shared governance, which, along with academic freedom, is an established cornerstone in American higher education (and coincidentally includes the importance of “long-range planning”).
What should the president have done? She should have commenced work on a strategic plan during her first months in office, a plan that would have identified the most relevant issues and included faculty and student representation. Strategic planning is endorsed by the Association of Governing Boards and virtually every presidential association in the country, and it is not considered top-down management.
What should the president do now? Commission an uninvested, experienced third party to conduct a complete assessment of the university. That dispassionate third party should be approved by both the president and the board.
What should such an assessment include? It should be conducted by four or five tested external authorities in higher education, all experienced in conducting institutional assessments. The team would evaluate the present condition of the University of Virginia and make specific recommendations with an eye toward strategic planning.
The assessment should consider the following in terms of the university’s costs, strengths, limitations, funds, trends, aspirations and recommendations:
· Academic programs;
· Faculty credentials and compensation;
· Budget and finance;
· Senior officers;
· Private support and outside grants;
· Public relations;
· Governance, both board and campuses;
· Recommendations; and
· Other issues and conditions presented during the course of the review.
All recommendations would be consistent with the AAUP 1966 Statement on shared governance and the 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom. Interviews should be held with faculty, students, staff, alumni, board members and other persons internal and external selected by position, by stratified random sample and at random.
In retrospect, an assessment done in association with the University of Virginia presidential search process would have provided a logical and appropriate juncture for institutional health, appraisal and evaluation. A search that avoids this process, as was the case with the University of Virginia search, squanders a pivotal opportunity.
Additionally, such an assessment enables search committees to establish more than messianic criteria, allowing the board to address conditions that will make the position more attractive to first-rate candidates, and appointing a president whose qualifications are more closely matched with the institution’s identified needs.
For the sitting president, an assessment can do even more:
· Ensure a better informed and more supportive board by bringing to its attention important issues and potential problems affecting the institution.
· Help establish a tentative agenda for the institution and provide a more objective foundation for strategic and long-range planning (i.e., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Pittsburgh, Auburn University, University of Alaska System, et. al).
· Serve as an objective way to evaluate the institution and its academic programs, as well as the faculty and student body of an institution.
· Advise on the attitudes of all constituencies, including alumni, media, political bodies and townspeople, as well as faculty, staff and students.
· Help determine the potential for increased private support.
· Enhance the image of the institution.
· Prepare effectively for accreditations and other outside evaluations.
At the University of Virginia, an outside evaluator — using proven assessment methods — would be able to chart the shortest road to harmony, heightening the trust of all university stakeholders and positioning the institution for effective strategic planning.
Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies. Now in his 22nd year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards. He is chairman of the Board of Directors of Academic Search, Inc., in Washington, D.C.