Leadership Lessons from the UVA Controversy

Posted 06.28.2012

Early last month, I had the opportunity to be in a small group conversation with the president of one of the world’s great private universities. During the session, one of us asked the president what issue she was most concerned about and she immediately answered that it was the pressures on the public university system in the United States. She told us that her friends and colleagues leading those schools were facing enormous challenges such as the fiscal conditions of the states that support them and the rapidly changing nature of how learning is delivered.

Just a few weeks later, a lot of what she was talking about played out in dramatic fashion at the University of Virginia. In case you missed it, here’s the quick summary. Over the course of several months, Helen Dragas, the chair of the University’s Board of Visitors, privately solicited the support of other members of the Board to force the recently hired president of UVA, Teresa Sullivan, out of her job. Dragas and others on the Board had concluded that Sullivan was not moving quickly enough to position UVA for a different future. Sullivan was apparently blindsided when Dragas told her that the Board was prepared to vote her out and gave her the opportunity to resign. It’s clear that the broader UVA community was blindsided. Faculty, students, alumni and state legislators rallied around Sullivan and two weeks after the Board forced her resignation, they voted, as the Washington Post summarizes here, to reinstate Sullivan as president.

There are so many leadership lessons and issues in this case that it’s impossible to address them all in one blog post so I’ll just focus on how Dragas handled this situation from beginning to end.

You Can’t Keep Secrets Anymore:  In an age of radical transparency, why does any leader believe that they can make decisions that won’t eventually be exposed to the light of day? It was naïve of Dragas to think that she could hold a series of one off conversations with other Board members to force Sullivan out without that process being discovered. Even if you put the ethical issues aside for a moment, Dragas shouldn’t have operated in the way that she did because it just wasn’t practical.  There are so many channels through which information can be leaked these days that you can’t keep secrets anymore.

Fairness Matters:  When the word got out about how Dragas and other Board members forced Sullivan’s resignation, the outcry was swift and fierce. I think that was the case because most people have a pretty clear sense of what’s fair and what’s not. For instance, it’s not fair to have people sneaking around to force you out of your job when, by all reported accounts, they haven’t bothered to tell you that they didn’t think things were going so well.  People have to trust you if your leadership is to be deemed credible and legitimate. That trust begins with a perception of fairness.

The Crowd Can Quickly Overwhelm You:  As the controversy unfolded, it was interesting to see how Dragas dug in her heels. She hired the PR firm of Hill and Knowlton to help her defend her. Her public statements from that point were so carefully worded that they were almost a parody of corporate speak. None of that mattered in the end because her hand was forced by elected officials who pay attention to public opinion. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2010, we’ve seen example after example of how the crowd can overwhelm bad leadership. How do you keep this from happening to you? See lessons one and two of this post for a start.

What’s your take on the situation at UVA? What other lessons can leaders learn from the events there?