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University ouster policies largely mixed

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Posted: Saturday, November 17, 2012 7:34 pm | Updated: 9:56 pm, Sat Nov 17, 2012.

The next time the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors wants to kick out a sitting president, they’ll have to have a full meeting and a vote, thanks to changes recently made to the board’s governing rules. But how does that compare to other universities?

Actually, even UVa’s old policy was pretty strict.

While many university presidents have contracts, plenty — including the president of Virginia Tech — serve at the pleasure of the board. They’re hired with simple letters, and easily booted. Board bylaws often don’t lay out much in the way of removal processes.

Under UVa’s new system, a vote of the full board is required to change the president’s employment status. In a recent letter to its accrediting agency, the university argued that it met its old policy, which required the assent of two-thirds of the board, when Rector Helen E. Dragas polled board members individually before requesting President Teresa A. Sullivan’s resignation.

Dragas later convened an emergency meeting of the executive committee, at which three members accepted Sullivan’s resignation.

After massive public outcry, the board put Sullivan back in. In the months since, it’s been examining its governance structure. The change in removal procedures is perhaps the biggest change, though several others were approved at the same time, including changes to presidential reviews and the addition of consulting faculty members to board committees.

And, in a news release, Dragas said she saw the reforms as an ongoing process, not something that’s all done.

But, in the specific area of presidential job security, UVa’s already pretty far from some of its peers.

The Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities recommends that universities hire presidents using contracts that spell out the terms of dismissal, but many still don’t, said Richard Novak, senior vice president for the association. A 2000 survey revealed that 40 percent of public universities and 48 percent of private universities had no formal contract for the president. Those numbers have likely dropped since, Novak said.

He said he suspects UVa’s current setup is among the more explicit arrangements in use today.

For example, North Carolina has a two-tiered system that runs its 16 state universities. The president, who is in charge of the entire system, and the chancellors who run the individual campuses, are all at-will employees who serve at the pleasure of the system’s Board of Governors. Chancellors also must deal with Boards of Trustees, who are in charge of individual campuses.

There are administrative procedures there that spell out things such as a chancellor’s right of return to the faculty after being removed, said Joni Worthington, vice president for communications at the North Carolina university system.

Virginia Tech’s presidents don’t get contracts.

“They have always served at the pleasure of the board,” wrote Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations, in an email.

But that’s not to say that a contract is any sort of armor against a board’s displeasure. Sullivan had one, of course, and another president ousted recently, Richard Lariviere at the University of Oregon, had one as well.

His contract allowed the state board of higher education to fire him without cause so long as they gave 30 days notice.

In 2011, after he defied the state’s governor by giving out raises and the state board by lobbying the state legislature for more independence, the board did just that.

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