Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sullivan's Laws

Question of the Day: How could a university president hired from the outside who's only been on the job for two years inspire such fierce loyalty that faculty, students, staff, and alumni from all over the state would interrupt their lives and summers to stage a mass insurrection against an ill-conceived and badly managed plot by a corporate board to force her to resign?

Answer for the Ages: It's right here, in a WaPo story on how hard University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, a leader with a "relationship-based, relationship-centered presidency," worked in those two years to win hearts and minds in Charlottesville. You should go read the whole story, but here's the money quote:
From the start, Sullivan outlined what she called “Sullivan’s laws”: Never surprise an administrator. Never punish the messenger. Don’t hide bad news; meet it head-on. People and time are our greatest resources; don’t waste them. When dealing with a difficult matter, don’t leave anyone out, or else be prepared for fallout.
We'll pause here briefly while you all swoon over such inspiring common sense from an academic administrator who gets that strong, effective leadership is first and foremost about listening. And honesty. Crazy! No wonder they wanted to dump her!

Also, however, I'm thinking someone should take that sentence about dealing with difficult matters and needlepoint it onto a pillow for Rector Helen Dragas, who could definitely use a lesson or two in fallout avoidance. Don't leave anyone out, especially if the person you are thinking of leaving out is, like, a rockstar/goddess among the group of people who will be most affected by the decision you are secretly engineering! Why? Because inclusivity is cheaper than paying Hill & Knowlton to clean up your mess!

AnyHoos, UVA's Board of Visitors meets at 3 this afternoon to vote on Sullivan's possible reinstatement. (WaPo games out how the voting is likely to go here.) Paws and fingers in Roxie's World are crossed that cool heads and common sense will prevail as the Board goes for its big do-over. We recommend that you follow the action on Twitter, which has been an amazing source of real-time information throughout the crisis at UVA. Even if you are not among the Twitterati, you can search on the hashtag #UVA for the latest tweets. By the way, WaPo has done a swell job on this story. You'd almost think they were still a serious newspaper, with actual reporters and everything. Srsly. Props to higher education reporters Daniel de Vise, Jenna Johnson, Anita Kumar, and Donna St. George for thorough, thoughtful coverage.

Peace out, Jeffersonians, and if there's any doubt as to where this blog stands on the matter of The People v. Helen Dragas, let us dispel it now:


  1. GlassPen4:29 PM EDT

    Thanks for the paws-up, Roxie. I see that the Board of Visigoths knows when it has been defeated. (Someone on WaPo just commented that the new term for Sullivan is "President for Life"...hard to see how they can take her down after this.)

    I'd still like to see Drag-A$$ drawn and quartered. Sullivan has to allow the Rector and Board to save face...it's her style, and it is politic to be magnanimous. But Drag-A$$ should not get off so cheaply. She should at least pay her own Hill and Knowlton bill.

    Wahoo-wa. (Peace out.)

  2. Agree with you 100% here. Also: Board of Visigoths is sheer genius.

    What an amazing denouement. It will be interesting to see what happens with the Board, especially, Drag-A$$, going forward. As of this moment, Terry Sullivan is the most powerful person in American higher education. It will also be interesting to see what she does with the power and good will she has earned here, both on campus and off. Stay tuned.

  3. Very good news. There's a part of me that finds the unanimous vote a bit odd (what happened to having the courage of one's convictions?), but as a group recognition of the wisest response to the present situation it makes sense. I'm assuming Dragas will be out (i.e. not-reappointed) within days. The more interesting question is whether the board members appointed by McConnell and succeeding governors will be any more diverse in background and areas of expertise. If nothing else, this incident has shown that a university board made up almost entirely of lawyers and businesspeople has some serious blind spots.

    And I love Sullivan's rules, especially "don't leave anyone out," and "never surprise an administrator" -- or, I'd say, if possible, anyone. Not to beat the contingent-issues horse, but these rules are definitely harder to carry out when a significant proportion of the faculty aren't involved in service, and so don't hear about problems, or have a chance to help solve them, unless those who do do service go out of their way to include them/us. I've recently been surprised with new rules -- solutions to problems that others had apparently been discussing for some time, without saying anything to the great majority of the faculty actually involved, either those who were supposedly contributing to the problem, or those who, like me, apparently weren't, but are nevertheless affected by the solution. It's not a good experience.

  4. Dudley's human10:03 AM EDT

    Spectacular summary, Roxie. And, Glass Pen, "Board of Visigoths" is brilliant. I was going to suggest "Board of Moguls," with its double (or triple meaning), but the initials don't work out as well.

    (On the other hand, Genghis' crew were extremely unpleasant due to a ridiculous sense of privilege and pretty much stomped over everything in their path. And--third meaning--a mogul is after all an annoying bump in the course that can potentially throw one off track.)

    I do feel compelled (yeah, pedantry, sorry) to point out, at least, that the poor Visigoths suffer from bad press because they annoyed the Romans. On the other hand, they were solid on the subject of women's property rights. And probably smarter than to summarily get rid of a good leader. Which cannot be said for the Romans.

    Sullivan's rules should be posted in every administrative office.

  5. GlassPen5:16 PM EDT

    against all expectations, McDonnell just reappointed Drag-A$$ to the Board of Visigoths. this can't end well.


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