In the end, it wasn't really so much about the ousted and then reinstated University of Virginia president, Teresa Sullivan, or about the governing board leader, Helen Dragas, who had led a secret campaign against her and then, drowning in a tsunami of opposition, agreed to bring her back.
No, the U-Va. story of the last few weeks is really about the school community — the 99 percent who had been left out of the decision to fire her — successfully rising up to demand their leader back. University of Virginia faculty, students, alumni, administrators and others refused to go along with the secret decision by the board, and with a voice loud and persistent enough, won the day.
The Board of Visitors voted unanimously on Tuesday to reinstate Sullivan as president, and both Dragas and Sullivan promised to work together to take the university forward. A showdown that many had foreseen did not happen; negotiations before the session had been successful in coming to an agreement to bring back the president.
Ultimately, said former George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, this is “about the ‘peeps.’”
“It’s the French Revolution upside down. The people rising up to demand a return of the orthodox leader. The authentic president. Why? Well in the name of the 99 percent of course. They the stakeholders were not consulted by the 1 percent... Its about them: the ‘common man.’ Sullivan is the symbol,” he said.
Without the public opposition to Sullivan’s firing, Dragas never would have voted to reinstate the president. As it was, Dragas never admitted at Tuesday’s meeting that her judgment to remove Sullivan had been in error. She just apologized, for the second time, for the process.
In fact, she seemed at the meeting to continue to labor under the delusion that the drama she caused was somehow inevitable in order to get to a place where the governing board and president could work together.
“It is unfortunate,” she said at the meeting, “that we had to have a near death experience to get here.”
Um, no, the school didn’t have to. It did because the board didn’t understand the school it governs. This is a problem that will have to be addressed in the future.
But Dragas was right when she said this: “The university should not waste the enormous opportunity at hand.”
It will seize that opportunity only if there are real changes in the way the board operates. It is, of course, the board’s job to make the big decisions, even if they are unpopular, but hopefully the members have learned that doing so in a vacuum is bad management. Dragas’s term on the board is up soon and it is not clear whether Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) will appoint her to another term, or if she would want one if he asks.
Even if Dragas is gone, Sullivan still has to work with people, most of whom just two weeks ago agreed to throw her out of her job. At the end of Tuesday’s board meeting after reclaiming her job, Sullivan said to the members, “Thank you for renewing your confidence in me.”
For now, the university community can allow itself to believe that they really have — and didn’t vote to reinstate her simply to stop the turmoil. It remains to be seen how much the board really learned in two weeks.