To the casual reader, the University’s Jan. 13 press release might be mistaken for journalistic boilerplate — a routine report of personnel changes during the lull between two academic terms. But buried between the lines are key omissions that raise questions about the possibility that University leadership has departed from its previous commitment to foundational principles of good governance — namely, transparency, equity and stakeholder input.
The press release’s headline provides the facts — “U.Va.’s Magill Named President at Penn; Baucom Selected as Next U.Va. Provost.” For those unversed in academic jargon, the University provost — who also has an Executive Vice President designation at the University — is the chief academic officer of the University with a portfolio including oversight over the curriculum, faculty appointments and budgetary decision-making for academic units.
Taken as a bare statement of fact, the announcement itself is unexceptional, even bland — an important office, suddenly vacant, is just as suddenly filled. More extraordinary is what it doesn't say. The selection process employed by the University President and Board of Visitors to arrive at the appointment of a new provost is not mentioned. Was there a public posting for the position, a search committee tasked with nominating candidates to fill it or any solicitation of feedback from those constituencies with a stake in its outcome? Is this appointment consistent with the principles of good hiring practices at the University? The absence of information about the appointment process suggests a troubling choice to prioritize expediency in filling a spot over an ambitious search for excellent leadership to advance the University’s important missions.
This is not the first time the University has faced the challenge of filling a top University position when the current occupant departs mid-year to assume leadership of another institution. In prior instances, the University President and the Board have not acted in haste. Instead, interim appointments have been made from the rich pool of experienced leaders at the University to afford the consensus building and discovery that a thorough search enables. And, in other critically important positions at the University, such as the Dean of Students, interim leaders are currently in place while searches are ongoing. Why forego an interim appointment in this case?
What transpired appears inconsistent with both precedent and accepted practice. While there is no need to be wedded without reflection to repeating prior practices, there is value in articulating the rationale for significant deviations from precedent. This is particularly important when established practice supports the core University principle of shared governance. An objective of this practice of shared governance is to produce the outcome of a new provost who has broad support among the University’s constituencies and can therefore serve effectively as the chief academic officer. To be sure, the provost-designate may well have emerged as the consensus choice from a traditional search. But the expedited and opaque appointment deprives constituencies of the learning and assessment that come from a robust search process.
The University has in place carefully considered policies to foster equity and excellence in hiring at every level, which have evolved from the days when students and faculty were exclusively white and male. Of particular importance in this context is the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights, which maintains policies to ensure that candidates from diverse backgrounds are considered at all levels in University hiring. The departure of the University’s first female provost seems an inopportune moment to appear to set aside goals of improving diversity, equity and inclusion. It raises questions about the nature of the University President and Board’s commitments to these goals — are they contingent and followed only when convenient?
To be clear, concerns over the lack of process are not raised to promote bureaucratic red tape. Adhering to procedural norms in the appointment of the chief academic officer of the University — including the steps of broad outreach, consultation and consensus building — enhance the University’s capacity to function as an engine for innovation and opportunity in the Commonwealth and the nation.
The unfortunate irony of the situation is that the University President and incoming Provost — who have been public champions of democracy — have acted in a way that appears to dispense with good governance and transparency in this key leadership appointment. These actions risk undermining the credibility of the University’s efforts to contribute to the vital work of supporting a healthy democracy. Looking ahead, is it possible to better exercise the principles of shared governance in pursuit of the vibrant community of learning and scholarship that is the promise of the University?
Amalia Miller is a professor of economics at the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Turner is University Professor of Economics and Education. She can be reached at email@example.com