Seizing Second Chances At UVA

Written By: Daniel Forrester and Ian Portnoy Esq.

The country is watching as the premier and historic University of Virginia (UVA) is unraveling inside a vacuum of leaderless decision-making. Over the last month, the governing board of UVA decided to oust its popular president Teresa Sullivan; chose an interim president; had the interim president decline the role; and then reinstated Sullivan.

The supposed catalyst behind all the tumult was the Board’s perception of Sullivan’s ability to manage change and embrace technology. In the announcement of her departure the University’s Board stated: “For the past year, the board has had ongoing discussions about the importance of developing, articulating and acting on a clear and concrete strategic vision.” The statement continued with a quote from a central figure in this drama, Helen Ragas, who said: “In a rapidly changing and highly pressurized external environment in both health care and in academia, we believe that the University needs to remain at the forefront of change.” With more than a dash of internal politics, that few of us will ever deeply understand, Sullivan was dismissed.

Alas, the reset button has been hit hard at UVA. A “second term” President Sullivan should seize this moment and the latitude that it affords. Today, many institutions require an external forcing function to drive change but the change needs to be consistent with institution’s purpose and not a knee jerk reaction. Amidst the change, velocity, technological evolution and global context surrounding a major university, status quo mindsets can slowly decay a school’s relevancy. UVA has been relevant since Thomas Jefferson set his mind to envision it; Teresa Sullivan can now imagine a powerful new future for UVA. The shackles of inertia are off.

There is of course more to the story as the University’s slow embrace of technology was cited as a criticism of Sullivan’s effectiveness. Today, technology is sold to all of us as a panacea for an institution’s vision. To be left out of the next wave of technology drives many boards to believe that an institution will be rapidly left behind. For schools like MIT and Carnegie Mellon University that may be true. For schools like UVA, that may be less true. Embracing technology and having fidelity to your mission to educate a mind does not mean that technology deeply outweighs the methods of inquiry driven mainly by human interactions.

This is not a public relations fiasco as many have said; this is a lens into the psyche of an institution that is a proxy for thousands of others that grapple daily with how quickly to embrace new technology. Paradoxically, the school’s highly political governance structure, that ignored and disenfranchised the faulty, the Deans, and the student body, quickly found out that technology plays a big role on campus. Students and others unleashed their i-Phones, Twitter tweets and Facebook postings in a rapid revolt that changed the course of the school’s history.


Following this disruptive experience, a reinstated President Sullivan has a huge and consequential window of opportunity. Her second mandate dwarfs her first. Should she have the moxie to retake the helm, she will have goodwill and capital to expend that she must use quickly and decisively. Here are four ideas to consider:

First: Take a week or two to think and reflect about what has happened. Don’t act without context and the distillation of the top 3-4 lessons of these past weeks. When she is ready, give a thoughtful speech to the whole school and simulcast it off the web for alumni and all who want to hear. Within that speech pivot from the moment of chaos that just past and declare her top three goals for the remainder of her tenure. Follow the late Admiral Art Cebrowski’s advice, “be bold, be fast, and specific.” This speech will enable Dr. Sullivan to establish her leadership and allow her to guide the University’s future.

Second: Declare that you want to re-imagine the purpose of the institution and simplify its stated goals. 1985 was last time the purpose statement of the school was changed. UVA’s web site states that it “enriches the mind by stimulating and sustaining a spirit of free inquiry directed to understanding the nature of the universe and the role of mankind in it.” The question is does anyone on campus still believe it? Does that purpose statement drive behavior? There are also 14 stated goals for UVA that are mostly “hows” to enable the purpose. Get that lengthy list down to 4 or 5 goals that are unassailable and drive the institutions future relevancy.

Third: Declare that the governance structure over the institution failed to meet its responsibilities. Ask that the Governor of Virginia, charged with sourcing board members, engage directly with the school in a historic re-evaluation of what Thomas Jefferson set in motion. The Governor weighed in on the recent controversy and has a mandate within the charter of the school; use his office and influence to enable the board to be re-launched with transparency, better communications and the ability to consider technology beyond the hyperbolic aping of what other institutions are doing.

Fourth: Keeping in mind that her most important function is leadership and engagement of the various University constituencies, she should directly facilitate the student body and university leadership in a multi-month conversation about the appropriate role of technology at UVA. Of course the school will interact with technology within its future context. But should the school sell its soul and declare that “sprit of free inquiry” must happen most often while behind a laptop, i-Pad or smart phone? The art of dialogue has been perfected at schools like UVA. It’s a competency that should be re-examined but not abandoned. Use the process of inquiry to ask school leadership and the students to declare a “charter for the use of technology.” Codify a new social contract for technology and she will set precedent by having the discussion that most other schools simply ignore as they react and fearfully assume that they are behind the technology revolution. UVA will likely discover that it’s not behind and in fact the skills that matter the most have less to do with Facebook and more to do with unleashing the intuitive self deep within the students that it serves.

UVA will continue to thrive as a premier institution of higher learning. Teresa Sullivan has a window of opportunity that most school presidents only dream of. With thoughtfulness, openness and clarity she can seize this bizarre moment for the betterment and sustained relevancy of an exceptional and important American institution.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Daniel P. Forrester is an author, strategist and advisor to senior executives and their boards as they grapple with change, technology and relevancy. Ian K. Portnoy, Esq. is Senior Counsel at Dilworth Paxson, LLP and regularly advises education institutions at all levels.