by Paul Goldman, former Member of the State Council of Higher Education
With all due respect to the Governor, those advising him to take a “hands off” posture to the growing swirl around the real facts behind the “blind side” firing of UVA President Teresa Sullivan are wrong, wrong, wrong.
UVA is the top public college in Virginia, and thus the most important part of the state’s well-earned reputation for higher education. The Governor appoints all the members of the Board of Visitors; they are confirmed by the General Assembly.
Right now, the Governor, and Virginia’s reputation on education, is in a lose-lose posture. If we are to believe the current narrative, a handful of Board of Visitors members, acting in a secret cabal, fired UVA’s first female President not even halfway through her contract, without telling not only the majority of the board, but keeping the GOVERNOR IN THE DARK.
Again, with all due respect, this is a lose-lose narrative for Governor McDonnell. I have advised a few Governors in my time. None of them would have tolerated being left out of the loop on such an important decision. Indeed, there is no way they would put anyone on the board who would dare insult them this way.
And yes, it IS insulting. For gosh sakes, the Governor is the top dog in the state — he appoints the Board, he gets to sign off on whom they appoint they for President, he is key to their getting huge sums of public money, his policies are key to the issue of tuition and other important factors, the list is endless.
To repeat: There is NO OTHER GOVERNOR who would stay passive upon having to find out, AFTER THE FACT, of such a firing.
Yes, the Board of Visitors should be independent and is independent. But in the history of Virginia, this independence, which all Boards guard, has never included the kind of definition of “independence” now claimed by a handful of UVA board members. NEVER.
No, they don’t have to take the Governor’s advice. But not even to get his OPINION, given the stakes to the state’s image on education? That’s not independence: That’s arrogance.
LIKE IT OR NOT: The firing of the first female President – without cause apparently since there is nothing in her contract stating that those alleged “philosophic differences” could be grounds for firing – is going to raise all kinds of questions, not only on the campus and in the state, but nationally.
Let’s cut to the chase: Everyone knows that for years, Virginia was run by a “cliche of powerful folks” that extended to UVA. Just ask UVA Professor Larry Sabato, who would make a damn good President of the University if they had any sense.
THIS IS A TOTAL EMBARASSMENT FOR VIRGINIA.
Bottom line: Whether Governor McDonnell wants to face it or not, whether his advisors do or not, there is simply no way anyone who understands politics and policy in Virginia is going to believe that this firing went down they way it is being depicted by the Governor.
Why? Because, again, everyone involved at the Board level was picked by either the current or former Governor, These are savvy people, they understand politics.
The public simply isn’t going to buy this “we did it on our own without checking with higher ups.” That’s simply not going to wash.
I will state this flatly: the UVA board members believed they had either the support or the permission of some very powerful political and financial people to do this. The more they are allowed to pretend the opposite, the more it ultimately hurts the image of UVA: and thus hurts the image of public education at the college level in Virginia.
This is simply too high a price to pay for Virginians who value the state’s educational image.
Governor McDonnell therefore has to act, because it just doesn’t pass the “smell” test in the arena of public opinion. Governor McDonnell has to take charge, and make sure Virginians know someone is out there trying to protect the state’s education image.