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Ideas vary on closure at university

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Posted: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 1:47 am | Updated: 4:03 pm, Tue Jan 22, 2013.

“Closure: an often comforting or satisfying sense of finality …; also: something (as a satisfying ending) that provides such a sense”

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary, online


Members of the University of Virginia community are seeking closure regarding this summer’s extraordinary ouster and reinstatement of President Teresa A. Sullivan.

In what is a frequent psychological consequence of any betrayal, people just want to understand. They feel that if they could make sense of what happened, then life might be stable and predictable again. It is a reasonable reaction: The mind and emotions automatically seek such understanding, such stability.

Board of Visitors advisor Bill Goodwin is telling seekers that they just won’t find it.

“You’re trying to dig up things, and you’re trying to get answers, and in my opinion you won’t get them,” he told Faculty Senate Chairman George Cohen at a meeting last week. “And the more you dig, the more you make the university look bad.”

The exchange between the respected faculty leader and the successful Richmond entrepreneur is a minor representation of the academia/business dichotomy that powered this summer’s disagreement.

Here, the businessman’s advice has some merit. But so does the urge to seek understanding.

For the academic, research leading to knowledge is a natural response to a crisis. The summer’s events already have been referred to as an important “teaching moment” — and for the university community, that is not simply a cliche. It is a literal opportunity; members of the community genuinely want to understand why events unfurled as they did in order prevent a similar crisis, to find and correct legitimate shortcomings and to build stronger ties across the university.

For the businessman, understanding why a crisis occurred is also important, in order to prevent a recurrence. But the pace of business is much faster than the pace of academia (a fact reflected in some board members’ original complaints that President Sullivan wasn’t moving quickly enough to address problems). And a compelling impulse for business is not just understanding, but also damage control — especially regarding publicity, as in: “And the more you dig, the more you make the university look bad.”

To someone steeped in business, academia’s inclination to study the crisis may seem like navel-gazing.

At a certain point, there is value in simply moving on. Too much immersion in the past can bog down one’s recovery from betrayal. But that optimal point might permit more introspection than a business perspective would allow.

Here’s a bad idea: Refuse to even discuss the crisis. That was board member Bobbie Kilberg’s advice to President Sullivan when people ask her about the summer’s events.

Refusal to answer would be counterproductive; it would stir up even more suspicion and discontent. Secrecy was one of the most egregious failings of the Board of Visitors in its ouster scheme; for President Sullivan to mirror that penchant would be a terrible mistake.

It would, in fact, truncate any progress toward closure.