Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The firing of the president at the University of Virginia

People have been scratching their heads, trying to understand why and how the University of Virginia’s (UVA) board fired its president, Teresa Sullivan, for what appeared to be arbitrary reasons, and with little consideration for process. For those who have not been following the story, the board’s Rector, Helen Dragas, polled each board member by phone to assess if they would support firing Sullivan, who had been in the role for only two years. When Dragas found that a majority would, she called Sullivan and asked for her resignation, telling her that she had lost the board’s support. Faculty and students responded with considerable anger to what looked like an arbitrary and imperious decision.

Needless to say, the board’s process was exceedingly clumsy. Faculty members and students felt blindsided, and for several days the board could provide no clear rationale to any of its publics for why its members had dismissed Sullivan so suddenly. The earliest report of the firing, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, suggested that the board wanted a president who could lead with the spirit of “strategic dynamism,” a phrase that certainly lacks precision and led people to think that the board was foolish enough to be influenced by business fads.

As the story unfolded it became clear that the board worried that Sullivan was too much the “incrementalist.” She had spent her first two years developing a new budgeting process for the university, while board members thought the university needed a transformational leader who, most importantly, could take them into the world of online learning. Hence the term “strategic dynamism.” We are left with two questions; why they “really” fired Sullivan, and why in such a clumsy and almost self-defeating manner? One hypothesis is that the answers to both of these questions are one and the same.

Prior to the firing, there was much reporting in the general press about the “breakout” of online learning from what was once a curiosity, relegated to for profit-universities looking to make money, to one embraced by elite institutions; namely MIT, Harvard and Stanford. Most dramatically, this past March, Stanford engineering professors, Peter Nerving and Jennifer Widom, offered two online courses in machine learning and artificial intelligence, both of which attracted between them over a quarter of million students around the world. The students in Widom’s class collectively viewed 290,000 videos, took 10,000 tests, asked 224 questions and gave 2000 replies. As one journalist wrote, “although the students do not get Stanford credit for their work, they gain access to faculty and Stanford Engineering’s most popular computer science courses.” Subsequent to this breakout event, MIT and Harvard committed $60 million to develop and offer free online courses. In addition, two other Stanford professors who helped develop the computer platform used for the university’s online courses, formed a company called Corsera.

One hypothesis is that this flurry of activity in online learning constitutes a “sentinel event.” This kind of event concatenates several long-term trends that heretofore have operated below the social radar. The event crystallizes the potential meaning of these trends when taken together, and highlights how they might disrupt organizations, status hierarchies and marketplaces The trends themselves appear obvious in retrospect; for example, in this case, the proliferation of high speed internet connections, the ability to process and manage large scale data bases, years of experimenting in online learning, the rise of the middle class throughout much of the developing world, and an entrepreneurial culture which is reshaping university life. We knew about all of these when considered separately. We just did not appreciate their power to change our situation when taken together.

The meaning of a sentinel event is invariably linked to both feelings of excitement and anxiety. Stanford’s online courses excited observers because they suggested that students everywhere have access to the best pedagogical materials, regardless of social class, ethnic group or geography. But they also created substantial anxiety because they suggested that the universities and colleges could be “dis-intermediated.” Might students in the future pursue certificates of competence in particular skills or subjects rather than degrees from institutions; particularly if elite institutions backed these certificates, and guaranteed that they were using the best pedagogy and assessment methods?

This mixture of anxiety and excitement shapes our response to the sentinel event. But when anxiety predominates, for example we feel unprepared to cope with developments the event portends, the event may stimulate apocalyptic thinking; the experience that, “the world as we know it is changing.” Many decades ago Alvin Toffler, in his classic text, characterized this experience as “future shock.”

One question is, how does future shock shape executive decision-making? The term “shock” is suggestive. A shock overwhelms our senses, and in response we become desensitized or numb. When we are desensitized our thinking becomes imprecise and impressionistic, and we lose sight of some of the commonsense connections between cause and effect -- a process that psychologists call dissociation. This is similar to the hysteric’s thought process, and of course it makes sense that when we succumb to apocalyptic thinking, we become something like hysterical. 

So one hypothesis is that UVA board members were gripped by apocalyptic thinking; that the sentinel event stimulated in them the belief that the world, as they knew it, was changing, and that they responded hysterically. This could account for both the conviction they felt that Sullivan had to be dismissed -- they still refuse to back down despite the protests-- as well as for the clumsy way in which they fired her. This hypothesis gains some additional credence when we consider that some of those who protested her firing responded hysterically as well. Thus for example, in protesting the dismissal, the university’s provost said, “I know I find myself at a defining moment, confronting and questioning whether honor, integrity and trust are truly the foundational pillars of life at the University of Virginia.”

We are naturally led to ask if these hysterical responses are arbitrary or unfounded. The answer depends on two factors, is the sentinel event really a sentinel, and if it is, is the institution vulnerable?  I am inclined to answer yes to both, that the hysteria, while unhelpful is not arbitrary, and that UVA is vulnerable. While some commentators have suggested that the issue of online learning is trivial, “an individual professor’s hobby,” “other universities offering a few online course for free,” the fact is that the MIT Open Courseware Initiative has published instructional resources online for 2,000 courses since 2001. Similarly, 41 million users visited the online site, “Kahn Academy,” in the last 18 months. The site houses a library of 3,000 videos providing instruction in a wide array of technical courses such as math, finance and economics. In addition, UVA is quite vulnerable since it has lost the bulk of its state funding and it cannot rely on tuition increases to fund its development costs.

Sullivan defended her record as an “incrementalist” on the sensible grounds that you cannot order faculty around, that you can’t lead “top down.” As she wrote, “Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work." But if you believe in the apocalypse, this argument only reinforces the conviction that the institution is at risk. There is no time for “buy-in.” Sullivan’s defense becomes paradoxically an argument for her dismissal, not against it.

One prediction is that we are in for many more of these “future shocks,” and that our leaders are vulnerable to apocalyptic thinking and thus hysterical decision-making. How can we prepare for the future without succumbing to the anxieties it creates?


  1. Boards made up of business people do not understand and have no patience with the colleagueship in academe. They see their university president through the lens of a CEO, not a academic officer. Also they look at the for-profits that are run like entrepreneurial corporations and they immediately get nervous that UVA is loosing some competitive race. You have to remember boards want their schools to crank out MBA's that are prepared to step into leadership roles, not classics people.


  2. Bill does your comment suggest that there was no reasonable basis for the board's concerns? I am arguing the reverse, but that the board,, in the grip of hysterical thinking, clearly fumbled.

  3. I go with Larry here. Another related element is that the cost structure of the modern university, in its traditional form, is unsustainable. What they offer is way overpriced, especially given the state of the economy. So they are pumping out thousands of graduates, loaded to the gills with debt, who cannot find jobs that offer anything like the possibility of paying off that debt. And high school students, and their parents, are looking at this as they think about their future. One can easily imagine universities going the way of newspapers. And then you throw in the possibilities of online learning? No wonder those trustees are hysterical; anybody would be. Cannons to the right of them, cannons to the left.

  4. First, I am grateful to find that you're a blogger and share your thoughts. I am halfway thru "Reworking Authority" and really like how to apply psychodynamic principles to solve business issues.
    I've closely followed the UVA story and find your view very interesting and different than mine (not to imply less than).
    I appreciate your system view as you enlightened my understanding of the "shock" of on-line investments, the Kahn Academy, and the imperative for universities to respond to the rapid changing paradigm of education. I especially like your view of anxiety and decision making and how Sullivan's incrementalism may not be a good course of action.
    Then again, there may be more serious fundamental issues to address at UVA that requires Sullivan's attention. As result, what does the Board of Visitors and UVA president focus on? Is it first establishing departmental accountability? Are their stakeholder relationships that need repairing especially from donors? Are there individual deficiencies that need to be addressed at the Board level?
    Since many or most of the board are assigned by the Governor of Virginia based on political contributions is it possible that they are unable to work together and as such created a leadership void that Helen Dragas filled? Were they enamored with her strategic dynamism concept and followed her lead without careful thought of strategy and process? Are they are unaware of their own collusion and scapegoating of Sullivan when they in fact could be the main problem?
    UVA, IMHO, is a great case for future OD practitioners. It offers multiple stakeholders, system disruption, leadership and group behaviors, strategy voids, differences in opinions, etc.

  5. I think one conception of the psychodynamics of strategy is that essential strategic dilemmas permeate all operations, and shape all important relationships. If we believe that online education poses such a dilemma we would predict that many other "symptoms" would be linked to this dysfunction. It is not unlike "the elephant in the room."

  6. After finishing "Reworking Authority" I wonder how many people understand the underlying dynamics that permeate their relationships and especially how to work with this understanding. In my workplace I seek to better understand my feelings towards authority and I hear the dilemmas voiced by others. At times I feel lost and unsure of what to do. Yet, I find by being open and honest and vulnerable it helps. I own and can express my understandings and feelings and know what I can accomplish. I am able to do this more often now than years before but I think I've had this ability for awhile. Part of this was being able to be somewhat financial self-sufficient (savings and little debt).
    It also helps to remind myself that many times I am making up stories, i.e. hallucinating, what other people's intentions are. That helps me to be curious and ask questions versus taking action on assumptions.

    Going back to UVA it would seem that any progress would require a deeper understanding of these forces by the main participants - both individually and collectively. I am curious how you do this?