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Reader perspectives on Sullivan's resignation (updated)

A Confused Hoo

For the past two weeks, the development on presidency of the University of Virginia has surprised many of us. Immediately following the surprise is a mix of confusion amongst students, faculty and alumni who love the University dearly and are concerned about the decision made by the Board of Visitors.

Many of us are confused, not only due to the lack of communication, but also as a result of apparent conflicting statements made by the Board. This is an article overdue, for the geographical distance from the University and the constraint of summer time. So why was I confused by the Board's decision?

So far there are 3 emails in my inbox from Ms. Helen Dragas, the University Rector, titled "Teresa Sullivan to Step Down Aug. 15 as U.Va. President," "Followup to yesterday's message about change in University leadership," "Message from University Rector." Each email is longer than the prior one, with which my confusion grows even further.

In the first email, three points stand out to me. "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" leaves me wondering whether the ouster of President Sullivan is because of her lack of such a vision or her short-lived presidency is actually part of this vision. The average tenure for a University president is about 15 years. To judge President Sullivan's performance in merely 14 months from her installation ceremony on April 15, 2011 seems like to tell a first-year student who just finishes 1st semester at UVa that he/she will not leave behind an outstanding record at the University. I am not convinced by the decision if not enough evidence is presented. The email then goes on explaining that "the University needs to remain at the forefront of change". In service to Jefferson's vision, "the Board is committed to preserving the legacy with which we have been entrusted". So the best way to preserve legacy includes radical change as such to oust a relatively new President at everybody's surprise during summer time? Even though the Board is entrusted with the authority to do so, making an important decision without consulting faculty and students in this manner at least disrespects the tradition of honor and trust on which we pride ourselves, not to mention so many of us didn't even get a chance to digest the shock before interim President was named days after. If this is the forefront of change we desire, I am confused about legacy preservation, because clearly in the process, the tradition of honor, trust and respect is lost. Even so, the Board thinks faculty and students are all "represented", as the email continues to state that "we have made a clear choice to act in the best interest of all concerned". The turmoil during past two weeks seems to disagree with such representation.

Well-intended to defuse the confusion, the Board sends out a second email a day after, in which the Rector is "to share my remarks from the meeting with the deans and vice presidents Sunday morning". I bet deans and vice presidents, as "leaders of the University", must be equally surprised and confused on Sunday morning. A slightly clearer reason is given in this email that "the board feels strongly and overwhelmingly that we need bold and proactive leadership". Like many, I am in confusion of what "bold and proactive leadership" means in the context. If any clue, I would say the radical move by the Board indeed reflects such a style of leadership. But the result, as we have heard or witnessed during the past two weeks, is not desirable. I am left with no clear answer whether "the world is simply moving too fast" or the Board is changing its mind too quickly. After all, I still remember walking down the Lawn to welcome President Sullivan at Installation Ceremony. And that was only last year, on April 15th.

The third email from the Board went out last Thursday, with a "partial list" of 10 challenges faced by the University. Indeed these are problems pointing to the right direction. However, I can't really call them insightful because every one of the problems has been tackled in President Sullivan's Academic Strategy Memo, which was issued early last month. It seems to me that these are merely reiteration of challenges already recognized by President Sullivan, who is committing herself to meeting the challenges and leading the University forward. I highly suggest any of us who is not yet familiar with President's strategic planning to take a look at the memo.

1. "Since 2000, state funding per student has declined from $15,300 to $8,300 per student in constant dollars." This is a hard fact over which the President has no control. Plus, President Sullivan has barely 2 years to deal with the challenge. To be fair, maybe the Board should have taken a "bold and proactive" approach earlier in the first decade of the 2000s?

2. Online learning has been brought into the mainstream. As much as I am supportive of the idea of spreading knowledge through the Internet, I would still think classroom interaction with professors is of essence in higher education. With declining funding and constrained time, I think it is justified to give priority to classroom experience. After all, I don't believe any university can excel at online teaching without providing an engaged and interactive classroom experience to current students. Plus, we already have one TED Talks which professes spreading ideas online. For the time being and other challenging constraints, an "incrementalist" approach might actually lead to a more effective and stable change.

3. Regarding "a dynamic and rapidly changing health care environment", President Sullivan has stated clearly in the Memo that she has "worked with the Rector and Visitors on planning for two [other] important functions of the University", one of which is exactly the strategic plan for the Health Center.

4. "A wave of faculty retirements is coming over the next years, and faculty retention is increasingly difficult due to stagnation in faculty salaries" has also been recognized rightly in President's Memo that "faculty hiring must be a critical area of emphasis