SACS examines UVA’s governance in wake of Sullivan controversy

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The University of Virginia. Photo:  Dan Addison/UVA Public Affairs The University of Virginia. Photo: Dan Addison/UVA Public Affairs

Nearly six months after UVA’s Board of Visitors caused an uproar among students and faculty for ousting President Teresa Sullivan, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges has issued a warning to the University about its governing practices. The UVA community and its accrediting organization agree that, despite the Board’s decision to retract Sullivan’s forced resignation, its secretive governing tactics were a breach of trust and a direct violation of SACSCOC’s principles.

Sullivan has spent most of the time since her ouster and subsequent reinstatement forging a new status quo, and in the meantime SACSCOC has been reviewing governance issues at UVA since the summer. According to SACSCOC President Belle Wheelan, the organization will send a visiting team to Grounds in early 2013.

According to a letter sent last Tuesday from Provost John Simon to the University community, the SACSCOC Board of Trustees determined that UVA was not in compliance with a core requirement and comprehensive standard regarding board governance and faculty roles. Simon’s letter reminded the University that the Board of Visitors recently adopted revisions to its manual to clarify procedures for electing and removing presidents, and plans to include faculty more directly in future board deliberations.

But SACSCOC conceded the compliance warning is not a substantial threat to UVA’s accreditation.

“They’ve developed a process they said they’ll use from now on. But they haven’t used it yet. Until they do, they’re still out of compliance,” Wheelan said. “But I don’t expect UVA to lose their accreditation.”

UVA initiated a strategic planning process, which is designed to examine its current state and imagine a new future. The plan will assess strengths and weaknesses in every corner of the University, and according to a letter from Sullivan posted on the strategic planning website, it should be inclusive and continuous.

The process will include a number of open forums, available to students, faculty, staff, and community members, and will cover topics like faculty recruitment and community involvement with the University.

Last week’s forum was scheduled ahead of time and was not in response to the warning, but some in attendance certainly had the events and aftermath of this summer in mind during the discussion, and emphasized the importance of faculty and staff seats on the Board of Visitors. McIntire School of Commerce Dean Carl Zeithaml, who was selected in June as interim president after Sullivan’s removal from the position, led the forum, and asked participants to consider what UVA should look like in 2019, its bicentennial. Following 30 minutes of small group discussion and brainstorming, several University and community leaders stood up to share their thoughts on how far UVA has come and where it ought to go

Among discussion topics at Wednesday’s meeting was the concern that UVA governs itself too much like a business, and not enough like a community.

“Why do we use the term ‘stakeholder’ instead of ‘community member?’” said psychology graduate student Anup Gampa. “We need to get rid of the business language.”

American Association of Education President Molly Broad said that’s a legitimate concern.

“Perhaps the governance system that has served this country so well for centuries is under stress, in part because of the pace that change is occurring, and in part as a result of what appears to be an intrusion into academia with political or individual agendas,” she said.

Broad said colleges and universities are governed “in a very different way than probably any other kind of organization,” and that it’s really a balancing act. She said a university that loses its accreditation would not qualify for federal financial aid, and the loss could negatively impact the caliber of faculty willing to accept positions. But she agrees with SACSCOC’s Wheelan that UVA will likely not only retain its accreditation, but will quickly move forward.

“There are some really positive things that have come from this,” Broad said, like the faculty’s vocal support for Sullivan and the University’s overall determination to come up with a strategic plan.

“Given the steps that have been taken at UVA, this will certainly disappear from UVA’s agenda in a very short period of time,” she added.

Faculty and students agree that the University has made tangible steps toward recovery, but history professor Brian Owensby questioned whether or not UVA can move forward from the summer’s events with the current rector—Helen Dragas, the driving force behind Sullivan’s ouster—still in her position.

“The reputational damage to the University is profound,” Owensby said. “I traveled in Europe this summer, and I had people at European universities saying ‘What’s going on at UVA?’”

Even months later, he said colleagues and potential graduate students at conferences ask him about the University’s status.

“There is genuine concern over whether the University is being properly governed,” he said. “And the SAC’s warning—if there were any doubts left, there aren’t any more.”

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