Higher ed scholar says Sullivan reinstatement ‘unprecedented’

A triumphant Teresa Sullivan addresses a cheering crowd on the Lawn on June 26 after the UVA Board of Visitors voted unanimously to reinstate her as president of the University. The decision followed more than two weeks of intense pressure from faculty and others within the community to reverse Sullivan’s removal. Photo by Cole Geddy/UVA Public Affairs.

Leaf to the back of University of Georgia sociology professor Joseph Hermanowicz’s 2011 book The American Academic Profession: Transformation in Contemporary Higher Education, and you’ll find a familiar name.

A few weeks ago, Teresa Sullivan’s contribution to the book, an essay on the institutional importance of university faculty that was written while she was still provost at the University of Michigan, might have been called thoughtful. Well-reasoned. Insightful, even.

Now, it’s hard to call it anything but prescient.

“As funding becomes tighter, and as the timeline for decision making grows shorter, decision making is likely to become more centralized, with fewer opportunities for input,” she wrote. “Under these conditions, administrators are likely to become more reliant on specialists in finance.”

But faculty input is key, Sullivan said—even though it’s increasingly under threat.

“Shared governance is the tenet of the academic profession that may be in the greatest jeopardy,” her conclusion reads. “Maintaining professional solidarity in the face of intellectual diversity and shifting loyalties between discipline and university may prove to be the most difficult task for the faculty.”

Professors at UVA, at least, have proved to be the exception. Their fierce, organized pushback in the wake of the forced resignation of their well-liked president gained national attention, and ultimately, their relentless pressure and ability to rally other members of the University community was the driving force behind the Board’s decision to reverse its decision and reinstate Sullivan.

But can they keep their momentum and spin a public victory into a more permanent expanded role in UVA’s governance?

It’s safe to say George Cohen had no idea what he was in for when he became chairman of the Faculty Senate on June 1. The genial law professor was nine days in and enjoying a family vacation in San Diego when the news of Sullivan’s resignation hit.

“I certainly spent more time in my hotel room on my iPad than I’d intended,” he said. Days later, he returned to a university already in an uproar, and presided over what was probably the most well-attended meeting of the Faculty Senate in UVA’s history.

The faculty, and especially the Senate leadership, spoke out early and forcefully against the ouster. They filled the Lawn for a series of protests and vigils. They held office hours to sign colleagues up for work groups and task forces. And they kept their departments’ students and alumni in the loop with a steady stream of e-mails.

Cohen said the scope and intensity of the reaction on Grounds was completely unexpected. But as details of the secretive ouster leaked out, he said, the faculty recognized that they could—and should—have a significant role in keeping pressure on the Board, because their positions gave them power others within the community lacked.

“We couldn’t really say everything about the people who talked to us and helped us, because they were in a more vulnerable position than we were,” he said. “Tenure is still a valuable thing. The faculty were the people who really could speak out on this issue, and we tried to do that in as respectful a way as we could.”

Ultimately, it worked, and now there’s a sense that those who want to see faculty play a bigger role in university governance have a chance to make a move.

Much of the anger over the secretive attempt to remove Sullivan was directed at UVA Rector Helen Dragas, who has since apologized for the way the Board of Visitors handled the affair. (Photo by Cole Geddy/UVA Public Affairs)

Shifting power

As the Board’s silent, unified stance on the Sullivan affair unraveled, some currently in power indicated they were open to change. Hunter Craig, who originally met with the rector and vice rector to accept Sullivan’s resignation before becoming a vocal supporter of her reinstatement, said he’d even give up his seat on the Board to make way for a faculty representative. It’s an idea many professors have echoed as a necessity in the future.
But John Thelin, a professor of higher education and public policy at the University of Kentucky, former chancellor professor at William & Mary, and the author of A History of American Education, said while many public universities have incorporated faculty representation into their governing boards, an appointment or two wouldn’t solve every problem.

“On the one hand, it’s a big gain, and it provides some continuity and formality, and it’s not going to be evaporated,” Thelin said. “It’s going to persist. But in some ways, those faculty members face a very hard situation. They can be coopted.”

Cohen agreed. The discussion now is about more than a representative on the Board, he said.

“We should take this opportunity to think as deeply and creatively as possible on the question of how the Board should be made up, how the Board should interact with the different constituencies of the University,” said Cohen.

It’s not something faculty can do alone, he said. Any change in Board rules, for instance, would require legislators to step in.

“So right now, we as the Faculty Senate are doing what we do best, which is try to figure out the pros and cons, do some research about what other places do, figure out what works and what doesn’t, try to come up with some proposals, and see what happens,” he said. The process has already started. Cohen said faculty members are signing up for workshops and scheduling symposia to talk governance in the coming months.

They could have an important leveraging tool at their disposal, Thelin said. Before Sullivan’s reinstatement, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put the UVA Board on notice, saying it had questions about UVA’s ongoing compliance with accreditation rules and calling into question the integrity of the Board. That should make UVA leaders nervous, Thelin said. The SACS is responsible for accrediting the University, and running afoul of its rules could have a serious negative impact on funding eligibility—not to mention the school’s reputation.

“Anything that would jeopardize the regional accreditation of the University is very high stakes,” Thelin said, and that might make Board members and state legislators more willing to entertain reforms.

Miracle on Grounds
Whatever the long-term effects on governance, Thelin said the turmoil at UVA was extraordinary. A president getting fired is nothing new, he said. Neither is faculty unrest. But a University community rallying around an ousted leader until there’s a reinstatement?
“As far as I know, it’s unprecedented,” he said.

Cohen seemed as surprised as anyone that he and the faculty he represents fought as hard as they did—and prevailed. But their message has remained the same throughout the last three weeks, he said, and it will guide them going forward.

“What we have been saying all along is that we understand change has to come, but let us be a part of the process,” he said. “Let us contribute. Let’s have the debate.”

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