June 17, 2012

Consequences of an Active Board

Photo courtesy of the Washington Post
The Board of Visitors (i.e., the trustees) of the University of Virginia asked President Teresa Sullivan to resign about a week ago. The board hatched the plan over several months, led by the rector Helen Dragas, but apparently did not inform the University's president until June 8. The furor following pushed the faculty to declare no confidence in the board, produced widespread student protest and has hatched some intriguing conspiracy theories.

Every story about the dismissal -- including the latest investigative piece by the Washington Post --  reinforces the truth that we know almost nothing about why the board terminated Ms. Sullivan's presidency only two years after it started.

The kerfuffle unraveling in Charlottesville does, however, show the consequences of an active board of trustees. The rector of the Visitors, and a few of her colleagues, laid plans for dismissing Ms. Sullivan months ago. Intriguingly, the Visitors did not see fit to consult the faculty, or to discuss the degree of their displeasure with Ms. Sullivan until asking for her resignation.

With only the opaque statements of the board in hand, we at Little Green Blog cannot offer any editorial position on Ms. Sullivan or those who crusaded  against her. We find it a dangerous combination, though, for a board to be so reactionary without corresponding levels of transparency. If the board found itself at ideological loggerheads with Ms. Sullivan and her staff, it should have elucidated the nature of the conflict instead of hiding behind closed doors.

Dartmouth alumni should not ignore the story as it unfolds, for it shows plainly the importance of trustees' fiduciary responsibilities. Alumni of the University of Virginia do not enjoy the same privilege as the sons and daughters of Dartmouth to elect a portion of the Board. Placing members on the Board who value transparency, and who will consider alumni, student and faculty concerns before taking such drastic action is paramount.

The Board of Visitors at U.Va. took an active role in the institution's governance, instead of serving as a rubber stamp for Ms. Sullivan's policies. Dartmouth's trustees should show such mettle in dealing with the College's next interim president and her successor. But the College's board should couple that engagement with more deference for the views of those most most vested in the College's fate.

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