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McDonnell as Calvin Coolidge: Will “Silent Bob” on UVA Turmoil Define Legacy

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( – promoted by lowkell)

by Paul Goldman

President Calvin Coolidge, who got to be the top dog due to a 1920 GOP Convention revolt by the delegates (forcing the then Massachusetts Governor onto Harding’s ticket as VP) had the nickname “Silent Cal.” He once said that if 10 issues are headed toward the chief executive’s office, 9 are never going to get to the Oval Office for a decision. So his operational approach was to wait to see which one required action. Why guess, he said, and fumble the ball on something that would never have actually required his taking action?

“Silent Bob” McDonnell is taking the “Keep Cool with Coolidge” approach (this was the 1924 GOP campaign slogan, rather clever) as regards the growing turmoil on the campus of UVA. “Silent Bob” is hoping the political hot potato will have cooled off by the time he has to announce his appointments to the UVA board.

The ouster of President Teresa Sullivan has made the state’s flagship public college the talk of Virginia — but not in a good way.

Right now, it is a majority of the Board of Visitors – it is not clear how many Board members would actually vote to fire Sullivan if put to a public vote – against the overwhelming majority of the rest of the UVA college community, not to mention the state’s educational folks everywhere. Sullivan is the “victim” of UVA Rector Helen Dragas, the “villain.”  

Governor McDonnell’s position on the matter – that he had nothing to do with the firing and that he will not interfere with what he sees as a personnel issue to be decided by the school’s management (the UVA Board) – has been stated and restated in recent days. Unlike every other previous Governor, he seems to relish the “not my job” mantra.

So we ask: Is this a wise course of action, or does McDonnell risk too much when compared to any likely gain?

At some point in the very near future, Mr. McDonnell will have to announce whether he will reappoint Ms. Dragas. She might ask not to be reappointed. But even if she takes him off that hook, you still have the mess on the ground.

This would be the job of the new board to fix, but it is hard to see how it would help McDonnell to keep his distance at that point. What is the upside for him? Does he want no role in picking the interim President to help fix the mess? So at the current rate, “Silent Bob” is headed for three possible options.

1) He reappoints Dragas. In this case, he would be handing over his legacy on education to Dragas. That doesn’t seem like the win-win play to me under any circumstances.

2) Dragas takes him off the hook by not seeking a second term. Politically, this is the best option right now for McDonnell, but it doesn’t demonstrate leadership on his part. It’s not the best option for Dragas, but better than getting canned (although not by much, probably).

3) McDonnell doesn’t reappoint Dragas. This will be taken as an implicit statement of his views on the UVA situation. But if Sullivan remains fired, what exactly is the public to make of a situation in which McDonnell refused to act for weeks, then acted long after the horse was out of the barn? This is doubly true if he then reverts to hands-off regarding the interim President.

If McDonnell doesn’t agree with Dragas, then how does he justify doing nothing when it counted? And if he agrees with Dragas, then why didn’t he leave her out there all along to fight for what he thinks is the right policy?

Either Sullivan should have been fired or not: to try and hide behind procedural complaints of one type or another, be they process, or personnel, seems a thin reed to me in the long run.

If the Governor believes Sullivan needed to be replaced for the good of the University, then Dragas did the right thing even if the process was bungled. If the Governor believes Sullivan should have been allowed to stay, then Dragas did the wrong thing even if she had followed the perfect process.

This isn’t a case where the process was illegal, or an illegal use of authority. So those who hide behind process complaints are hardly profiles in courage.

Sullivan was either the right person or not the right person to do what UVA needed done. Dragas had the courage of her convictions, but what are the Governor’s convictions?

“Silent Bob” strikes me as a posture that risks becoming riskier as the situation develops. “Silent Bob” may have temporary merits in a firestorm, but as the smoke clears, and everyone chooses sides, I think it is a hard place for a leader to be. Unless, of course, he doesn’t intend to lead.

And since I see this as a leadership moment – and a Governor’s legacy is based on what he did to lead – then I think McDonnell seriously risks his legacy here.

  • Statement of Faculty Senate Executive Council Concerning Meeting with Rector Dragas

    June 18, 2012

    This morning, the Faculty Senate Executive Council met with Rector Dragas to discuss the recent resignation of President Sullivan.  We invited the Vice Rector, but he did not attend. The purpose of the meeting was to allow the Council to ask questions raised by the University faculty concerning recent events, and to hear the Board’s perspective.

    We asked the Rector about the process and the reasons behind President Sullivan’s resignation; the principles of shared governance between the faculty, administration and the Board; the Board’s desire for a strategic plan; and the Board’s justification for the speedy and secretive nature of its actions.

    We had a cordial discussion. Based on extensive input from our faculty constituents and the Rector’s responses to our questions, we made the following requests:

    1.     That the Board delay the naming of any interim president to provide an opportunity for shared governance;

    2.     That President Sullivan be reinstated;

    3.     That the Board recommend representation by UVA faculty on the Board as voting members; and

    4.     That the Rector and Vice Rector resign in the best interests of the University.

  • See here, courtesy of Anna Scholl.

  • Bolding added by me for emphasis:

    On behalf of the Board of Visitors, I’d like to speak directly to the extended U.Va. family – to our students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends. We reach out to you today as fellow sons and daughters of this University, who studied here, matured into adulthood here, made friends here, met spouses here, and walked the hallowed Lawn.

    We share your love of this institution and its core values of honor, integrity, and trust. Like you, we have given our energy, commitment, and resources to the University. And, like you, we are inspired by the magic of U.Va. every time we speak with students and faculty. Through service to the University, we have had the true honor of witnessing up close all that the University community does so well.

    This has been a difficult week for the University. It is never easy to announce a change in leadership, particularly after a relatively short period of time since the last selection.

    While our actions in this matter were firmly grounded in what we believe to be in the very best and long-term interests of the University, and our students, faculty, staff and alumni, we want to express our sincere regret for the pain, anger and confusion they have caused among many in our U.Va. family. We certainly never wished nor intended to ignite such a reaction from the community of trust and honor that we all love so dearly. We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this University. For that reason, let me state clearly and unequivocally: you – our U.VA. family – deserved better from this Board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.

    The Board of Visitors exists to make these kinds of judgments on behalf of all the constituencies of the University. While the broader U.VA. community – our students, faculty, alumni, and donors, among others – have varied and important interactions and touch-points with our University leadership, the Board is the one entity that has a unique vantage point that enables us to oversee the big picture of those interactions, and how the leadership shapes the strategic trajectory of the University. Simply put, we have the responsibility, on behalf of the entire community, to make these important and often difficult calls.

    I want to make clear that the Board had a formalized communications process with the President, involving ongoing discussions for an extended period of time on progress toward mutually agreed-upon strategic goals for the University. And we took this action only as a result of there being an overwhelming consensus of the Board to do so, and after all Board members were thoughtfully and individually engaged.

    We have heard your demands for a fuller explanation of this action. And while our answers may seem insufficient and poorly communicated, we have responded with the best we have to offer – the truth.

    As Visitors, we have the very highest aspirations for the University of Virginia: for it to reach its fullest potential as a 21st century Academical Village, always rooted firmly in our enduring values of honor, integrity and trust. We crave to deliver the finest education and the most cutting-edge health care possible. Achievement of this singular goal is only possible through focused, specific, and well-funded institutional direction and vision, created not by the Board of Visitors, but by those who own the academic content and who steward the financial and physical resources of the University – the President, Provost, Chief Operating Officer, and the faculty. And, to set the record straight on an important point, the Board has never, nor will we ever, direct that particular programs or courses be eliminated or reduced. These matters belong to the faculty.

    Simply put, we want the University to be a leader in fulfilling its mission, not a follower. We want the very best caliber education and experience delivered to the 21,000 students for whom we are responsible. We crave the highest quality care for the almost 900,000 patient visits attended to by the exceptional doctors, nurses, and staff members in the U.VA. Medical Center. We seek to elevate access, affordability, quality and diversity for every student and each patient. And in our push for excellence we seek to be responsive to families and taxpayers who foot our bills and to legislators who demand accountability.

    This is all to say that there is not one single person on earth whose interests we would ever put above those of the thousands of stakeholders entrusted to our care. Not one President, not one administrator, not one faculty member, and certainly not one donor.

    Yes, we require external philanthropy to operate. We believe that it should be solicited according to the University’s articulated priorities – in particular, on raising resources to reverse the slide in faculty compensation to combat the increasingly intensive raid on our talented faculty. We absolutely must find ways to provide for the recruitment of our next generation of eminent scholars and researchers.

    As we look forward to the transition to new leadership at the University – a process that begins today with our deliberation over the selection of an interim President – the U.Va. family can rest assured that it will have a great deal of input. We have already met with student and faculty leadership, and we agreed to broaden and deepen our interaction and engagement going forward. For selection of the next president, our Board Manual calls for setting up a special committee, which, in addition to some Board members, will have representation from students, faculty alumni and staff. We look forward to your participation in this important process.

    On a personal note, I want to say something about our outgoing President, Terry Sullivan. Dr. Sullivan has put all of her considerable energies – and then some – into her work as President, and we owe her a great deal of gratitude for her service, her enthusiasm for improving U.VA., and for always keeping the best interests of this University foremost in mind. We hope that Dr. Sullivan will remain an important contributing member of our U.VA. family in the coming years, and we are very fortunate to have had the benefit of her service.

    I want to thank the U.VA. family for enduring the tumult of this difficult week. It has been exceptionally trying for all of us, and we accept our great share of responsibility for that. Going forward, the Board of Visitors pledges to work closely with you as we all pull together to restore the foundational unity of Mr. Jefferson’s University for current and future generations.

  • jwsevert

    has shamed the University of Virginia.

    At the end of the night as she fled the community with the contempuous arrogance she has demonstrated throughout, she couldn’t find her car.  She’d already lost her honor.