The Board's reinstatement of Sullivan is not all it must do to win back the University's trust
So this is history, is it; the tying of threads into narrative. The Board of Visitors tried to mend the seams which had been ripped from our University’s fabric in the cutting of President Teresa A. Sullivan by reinstating her Tuesday with a unanimous vote. Sullivan, grateful to the Board, praised the University’s unity, locked arms and sang with a community tighter knit than before. The Board’s second-vote encore would have been a fitting end to the University drama — if the goal had been merely to reinstate Sullivan. From the beginning, however, the debate was about information. Until loose ends are sewn, the public should be torn about whether a secretive reinstatement makes up for a secretive ouster. All was forgiven and nothing explained.
The first shock of Tuesday’s meeting came from the Board’s reversing a 12-1 decision to replace Sullivan with a 15-0 vote to recall her. What can explain this? Perhaps Sullivan showed her worthiness as a presidential candidate in her two weeks’ absentia, redeeming herself by explicitly rebutting the Board’s criticisms point-for-point and statement-for-statement. More likely, the Board bowed to overwhelming public pressure in reappointing Sullivan, thinking that restoring her seat at the boardroom table could serve as a public apology. If the Board was owning up to its faults through this gesture, it is difficult to see how it could admit such mishandling and still claim it is competent to manage our school.
Ultimately, we know little; if anything, Tuesday’s open session revealed more secrets and responsibilities shirked. Gov. Bob McDonnell demanded unity, which the Board gave. But the pleasing veneer of a unanimous vote allowed members to shield their opinions about Sullivan. In addition, Heywood Fralin said that all Board members had been aware Sullivan would be asked to resign. Previously, University Rector Helen Dragas had not discussed details regarding Sullivan’s resignation, citing the confidential nature of personnel matters and a nondisparagement clause amended to Sullivan’s contract. That Fralin did broadcast such personnel matters in a public, open meeting highlights that any Board member could have done likewise during the chaos of previous weeks.
Far from the case of Dragas v. Sullivan, this crisis was about information. The Board cited confidentiality policies which enabled it to keep matters private. The media used policies, such as the Freedom of Information Act, which allowed it to pry open secrets for the scrutiny of all. The Board may have “won,” in terms of pushing its dynamic agenda while flexing its power and having only one member resign. But it showed a dim understanding of the common demand for openness. In this its members exhibited not only a failure to act as the trustees of a public institution, but also an ignorance of the expectation for transparency typical to the endeavor of online education about which they are so thrilled.
With the governor and public generally pleased, calling for resignations might be asking too much — though in this case we welcome the willing. If the Board would have simply followed its own established procedures to make a closed-door, for-profit decision, no one would have noticed. Instead, the Board never met to fire Sullivan, ignoring the norms of its manual. It not only coerced Sullivan to resign, but did so in a contract amended to disarm the president while transferring power to the Rector. The Board stretched certain rules and rewrote others it could not circumvent. While we agree with the need for more student and faculty seats at the table, the Board’s make-up means little if certain members decide to withhold information and manipulate rules. We want future improvements, but will not forget that the Sullivan saga is a case never closed until the Board reinstates our trust.