An American Association of University Professors report released today pans the actions of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors in the summer leadership crisis.
The group points specifically at what it describes as the failings of Rector Helen E. Dragas.
“The investigating committee met with person after person, vainly striving for some explanation for the board’s action and the process it had followed that would give direction to what otherwise appears to be nothing more than a crude exercise of naked power,” the report reads.
The American Association of University Professors is a Washington-based nonprofit organization of 47,000 academics that lists its mission as, among other things, the promotion of shared governance.
The report on UVa outlines some popular theories: corporate influence, or the influence of those who support more active trustees. The group concludes that, without more information, the rector’s statements about the summer’s events — in which she led an effort to oust President Teresa A. Sullivan, then was forced by public pressure to reinstate her — should “be taken at face value.”
Dragas declined to answer the committee’s specific questions.
“While you invite us to correct the multiple errors of fact and comment on your treatment of issues, to do so would rehash past events and repeat corrections that are part of the public record,” Dragas wrote to the committee.
She added, “The specific questions you posed will be best answered by the actions of the Board in the coming months and years.” She pointed to changes, including live-streamed meetings and faculty advisers to board committees.
She declined to make any additional comments on the report.
The report goes over the points Dragas cited publicly during the crisis to justify her move.
Among the best known of those are concerns about online education and a lack of strategic planning.
“The uniform comment the investigating committee had from administrators and faculty members alike was that Ms. Dragas spoke in ignorance, without having informed herself about what was actually going on at the university,” the report reads.
On strategic planning, the committee points out that Sullivan had been ordered not to create a strategic plan.
“The rector faulted the president for a failure to do what she had been told not to do,” the report says.
The report suggests that Dragas was not invoking empty catchphrases so much as using rhetoric that reflects the mindset of someone running a small or mid-sized business.
“This mindset ill fits the role of trusteeship in the modern university,” the report says.
The report also has a few morsels of new information. Among them: That Dragas and then-Vice Rector Mark J. Kington told Sullivan that “she had no support within the faculty” when they asked her to leave the university.
“It was not an accurate reflection [of the faculty’s sentiment],” said Faculty Senate Chairman George Cohen. “I think that’s obvious.”
Faculty groups were among the first and most vocal in their protests of the board’s actions and, while the outrage overall was spread among students, faculty, staff and alumni, faculty members made up a large part of the crowds staging protests on Grounds during the summer.
Cohen said he thinks the board members might have based their assertion on a letter from some faculty members calling for more action on faculty pay, but board members might have read more into the letter than was there. No one checked with the Faculty Senate, he said.
Sullivan reported to investigators in November that the phrase Dragas used to explain Sullivan’s resignation, “philosophical differences,” was adopted out of expediency.
“President Sullivan told the investigating committee that she had no idea what that 'philosophical difference' referred to and that she and the rector had agreed to use the term ‘because some reason was needed for the press release.’”
"Philosophical differences" became one of the key phrases of the summer’s tumult. Protesters demanded an explanation. Dragas elaborated, but never to the satisfaction of many of her critics.
Sullivan admitted in September that she didn’t entirely understand what Dragas meant by the phrase. Members of the school's Board of Visitors chided her at the meeting held following those remarks.
The report calls for greater faculty involvement in governance, including the removal of presidents, and for governors to appoint board members for expertise, rather than patronage.
“We’d like to engage with the board and help the board figure out a way to re-engage with the faculty,” said professor Walter F. Heinecke, of the newly formed local chapter of the AAUP.
The report also calls for the Faculty Senate to select the faculty members advising board committees, rather than the administration, and suggests there should be a faculty member on the board if there is already a non-voting student member.
“In sum, the events that transpired at the University of Virginia between June 10 and June 26, 2012, stand as mute testimony to the manifest wisdom of faculty consultation,” the report reads.
The Faculty Senate is “focused on trying to make things better,” Cohen said. It recognizes the need to catalogue what happened during the summer and learn from it, but wants to also improve its working relationship with the board, Cohen said.
And the document reports that board members have not been receptive to offers from deans to meet with faculty members and students to better learn what’s actually going on at the university.
The report rejects the “power struggle” description of what happened in June. The crisis stemmed partly from structural failures, it concludes.
“In much greater measure it was a failure by those charged with institutional oversight to understand the institution over which they presided and to engage with the administration and the faculty in an effort to be well-informed,” it reads. “It was a failure of judgment and, alas, of common sense.”