The recent turmoil at the University of Virginia surrounding the forced resignation of President Teresa Sullivan sent shock waves throughout the academy. Reverberations continue. Regardless of the largely happy outcome of events, the Association has launched an investigation into what went wrong. Though some problems seem glaringly obvious, the investigating committee is taking a close and objective look at UVA’s procedures and is considering whether they were adequate and whether procedures already in place were actually followed. In the meantime, many on and off the UVA campus continue to shake their heads and ask how such a debacle could have happened. And at Mr. Jefferson’s university, of all places.
One question, frequently posed by faculty, students, alumni, and the press, was simple: did the board of visitors not understand what sort of institution they were charged to protect and cherish? Indeed, that very question might legitimately be posed to governing boards throughout higher education. Did the board of visitors, like so many of their board colleagues around the country—politicians (or political appointees), corporate moguls (or mogul wannabes), for the most part well-meaning folks but often obsessed with dynamics and strategies and the current biz-speak that passes for actual thought—fabricate a fantasy university of their dreams, one that had little or nothing to do with the realities and distinguished history of the institution in their care? Did the UVA debacle result from a deadly combination of arrogance and disengagement?
While we await the results of the AAUP investigation, there are lessons to be learned for University of Virginia faculty and for faculty everywhere. The events at Mr. Jefferson’s campus tell a cautionary tale. The board members rather clearly misread the likely reaction of the faculty to their move to dismiss the president. Did the faculty also misread the board? Did they have regular and dependable lines of communication with the board? Did they take for granted the knowledge and goodwill of board members? The University of Virginia has an active faculty senate; basic governance structures are in place. There are good people at UVA, and yet the unthinkable happened.
The governance of a modern institution of higher education is a complex affair. Faculty often find participation in institutional governance tedious, time consuming, and frustrating—in short, a seemingly unrewarding distraction from their teaching and research. Letting someone else do it, whether a few elected stalwarts or corporate administrators or some Olympian board of trustees, undoubtedly can seem a better option. The result, however, of anything less than fully committed faculty participation in institutional governance can be catastrophic. When boards and administrations sense that they can ignore with impunity the faculty’s role in decision making, scenarios like the one that played out at the University of Virginia are inevitable.
As I grow older (even older, I should say), I find that my mind works in stranger and stranger ways. When I read the first reports of the crisis at the University of Virginia and wondered with so many others whether the board of visitors had lost touch with the nature and character of the university they headed, I found myself reaching not for the AAUP Redbook but for a long-misshelved copy of the poems of Emily Dickinson. Complacency at UVA, I feared, had led to disaster. The vigorous reaction of the faculty as well as the students and alumni proved me wrong. But I wondered then and I wonder now how other institutions would respond to a similar crisis. Would they be as vigilant as our UVA colleagues, or would they realize too late the need for a vibrant governance structure and serious faculty participation in institutional decision making? Would they find that they had allowed the faculty’s role to atrophy and fade away? The Belle of Amherst, to my knowledge, had no expressed interest in faculty governance, nor did she have it in mind when she wrote these lines, but maybe their relevance is not too much of a stretch:
I held a Jewel in my fingers—
And went to sleep—
The day was warm, and winds were prosy—
I said “’Twill keep”—
I woke—and chid my honest fingers,
The Gem was gone—
And now, an Amethyst remembrance
Is all I own—
Martin D. Snyder is senior associate general secretary of the AAUP.