Sullivan Reinstated as President of University of Virginia

Teresa Sullivan has been reinstated by the Board of Visitors as University of Virginia president three weeks after being ousted by Rector Helen Dragas. Students, faculty and alumni protested the forced resignation and on Tuesday all 15 members of the Board of Visitors voted to bring Sullivan back.

In the days before the vote, Rector Helen Dragas said Sullivan’s self-described “incrementalist” style stood in the way of the university’s long-term success. In defending her performance since she took office in August 2010, however, Sullivan said: “Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university.”

At issue during the original removal of Sullivan were concerns that she wasn’t moving fast enough to position University of Virginia in the online courses market or dealing effectively with the problem of diminishing government funding. In a statement last week Dragas, explained the decision to remove Sullivan was due to a perceived lack of planning and leadership. However on Tuesday Dragas said that she supported Sullivan’s return and has pledged to work with the returning President.

The original dismissal, and change of heart, has created a debate around the benefits of results driven management versus traditional academic leadership:

“Universities are not corporations. Universities are nonprofit, public entities that have missions of teaching, research and public service,” said Matt Hedstrom, an assistant professor of religious studies and American studies at U.Va. who backed Sullivan. “Those are not the same mission as a corporation. They also don’t have the same cultures and governance. They’re much less hierarchical.”

The ideological argument about how to best run a University is taking place at multiple locations throughout the country as reformists increasingly look to incorporate business strategies into the running of the institution.

There is some controversy over Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels selection as president of Purdue University, considering that he had appointed, or reappointed, most of the board himself. While the conflict of interest is hard to deny, his supporters claim that the former White House budget director and executive of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly will be a huge boon to the University.

“I think in today’s world that the president of a university, No. 1, has to be a great fundraiser, and I think Mitch Daniels has proven he’s a good fundraiser,” Senate Education Committee chairman Dennis Kruse told Indiana Public Broadcasting.

The traditional model of academic leadership, which Sullivan represents, is very much one of collaboration between faculty and administrators, recognizing the depth of knowledge that the professors represent and the value their input can have. There are those like Dragas, however, who consider this process to be too slow and believe that a University President should be more like a CEO making decisions quickly and not necessarily with consultation.

06 28, 2012
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