The University System of Maryland board of regents has been looking really professional and wise recently merely by contrast with the University of Virginia board of visitors.
Governing boards of universities play a vitally important role in American public higher education, and positions on those boards are often eagerly sought after and are seen as highly prestigious. Yet, for the most part, the names of the members are not widely known and, in fact, what the boards actually do is not particularly clear to most people. Helen Dragas, who as head of U. Va.’s board has the title of rector, is now having her moments of fame, and they are likely to last a good bit longer than 15 minutes.
By far, the most critical function that governing boards play is to hire, review and occasionally fire university presidents.
Getting the right leader for a campus is an increasingly challenging process. Academic searches are often a strange mix of apparent rigor — multiple reference checks, background and security reviews, interviews and public presentations — and much more impressionistic decisions based on whether a candidate is likeable, has good interview skills or establishes a bond with key members of the board.
For all the importance of hiring decisions, boards sometimes mess them up. In Maryland, it was only a decade ago that Mark Perkins was hired as the new president of Towson University, only to be gone in less than a year following a flurry of missteps. The stories soon came out that faculty and staff at his previous institution found the pattern totally familiar and wondered why no one had called them before Perkins was hired.
In Maryland, a campus search committee starts the process and ends up giving a short list of recommendations to the chancellor and the board. That’s where the ultimate decision-making authority resides, and where the chemistry between candidates and board members is particularly significant.
Moreover, the recent pattern has been for the entire process to be closed, with no public presentations or campus visits. That’s a particularly risky practice in a university culture that puts a high value on openness and transparency. The justification has generally been that “good” candidates will not apply if their current institution knows that they are on the job market. That argument seems less persuasive by the time you get to a short list of finalists.
The decision in Virginia to force Teresa Sullivan out as president at the Charlottesville campus is drawing lots of criticism, in part because she has only been there two years. A long time compared to Mark Perkins, but very early in the tenure of most presidents.
The University of Virginia has long been regarded as in the top tier of public universities in this country. The fact that Thomas Jefferson was its founder helps, but it is, by almost any measure you can think of, an outstanding institution. When the governor and General Assembly back in 1988 were looking at how to restructure Maryland’s higher education system, Virginia was one of the models that was closely examined.
The manner in which the board of visitors pushed Sullivan out could hardly have been more inept or heavy-handed. The rector polled the board members by telephone over a series of several months, never convening the entire group to make a decision or to meet with Sullivan about it. Initially, there was no public explanation as to why Sullivan was asked to resign.
As the backlash to the decision has intensified, “explanations” have dribbled out. The university’s $3 billion capital campaign, which started in 2004, years before Sullivan was appointed to her position, had fallen short of its goals. (From a Maryland perspective, it’s hard not to be in awe of the $24 million a month that is the average pledge level or the $87 million that came in last December.) Sullivan, it was also said, did not have a strategic vision, and she had resisted making cuts to the university’s budget that the board wanted.
Those explanations may or may not have validity, but if they do, why weren’t they part of a clear public presentation at the time of her ouster? On its face, and there of course may be more to the story, Sullivan’s removal looks like a coup by the board’s leadership to get rid of a president whom they personally did not like. Was it that she was not an alum of U. Va.? Was it that she was the first female president? Was it that her style or personality annoyed them?
On Monday, the board named an interim president, Carl Zeithaml, the dean of the College of Commerce at U.Va. Despite Dragos’ public statement apologizing for the manner in which the board handled Sullivan’s removal, the decision to meet behind closed doors to approve Zeithaml’s appointment shows that they have not learned anything from the public backlash.
Rector Dragos has brought a lot of attention to U. Va. — of a kind that the university certainly does not want — and has shined a bit of light on the activities of governing boards. She has made herself a public figure for at least a little while. She has not, however, done the reputation of the University of Virginia any favors.
As a version of the old bumper sticker says, “It’s better in Maryland.”
Laslo Boyd does consulting in higher education, public policy and politics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.