Thursday, June 28, 2012

Cavalier, Indeed

Some weeks ago I posted a blog about proper treatment of volunteers in nonprofits (“With Volunteers, Thank, Don’t Spank” 4/23). Here the lesson regards proper treatment of CEOs.

The University of Virginia (UVA) sports teams are known as The Cavaliers, and their logo is a crossed sword.  The original Cavaliers (the word means horsemen, from the French) were Royalists supporters of Kings Charles I and II in the 17th century English Civil War. I am not sure why UVA took on that moniker, but Virginia does have an Anglophile tradition.
“Cavalier” also means haughty or disdainful, as in treating someone in a “cavalier manner.” Ironically that’s what best describes how the UVA governing board leadership recently handled the removal of UVA president Teresa Sullivan. The ouster was masterminded (or miniminded if there is such a word), by UVA Rector (UVA’s term for board president) Helen Dragas, who informed  Dr. Sullivan on June 10 that she had enough board votes to oust her. However, the full board was never convened to take a vote.  The popular Dr. Sullivan, in office for only two years, resigned. 

Then the proverbial excrement hit the fan, as much regarding the decision-making process as anything else. Students protested en masse, the faculty Senate demanded Sullivan’s reinstatement, some donors threatened to exit, and the media erupted into a high frenzy. The Board appointed an interim President from the Faculty, who later announced he would refuse to serve.  As a former Virginian (1992-2006), I know how passionately UVA grads feel about their school, and well they should, as it is one of the premier universities in the country, with fine sports teams to boot.

The board, known formally as the Board of Visitors, is composed of sixteen members, all appointed by the Governor for  four year terms, with legislative approval. As Virginia governors themselves are limited to one four year term, in this case eight of the Board members were appointed by either Democrat former Governors Tim Kaine, now running for U.S. Senate, and Mark Warner, a U.S. Senator, and the other eight by the present Republican Governor Bob McDonnell, mentioned as a possible Veep choice for Matt Romney. Thus this fracas took place in a politicized environment.  Governor McDonnell finally announced the Board had to take action at its specially called meeting on June 26, one way or another, on any possible reinstatement of Dr. Sullivan or he would fire them all.  Tim Kaine on June 22 called for the reinstatement of Sullivan.
As the matter unfolded, it became clear Ms. Dragas, a successful real estate developer from Virginia Beach, had co-conspired with some other big money board members, notably  Vice Rector Mark Kington (who subsequently resigned),  to effect the ouster.  I guess they believed in the golden rule: “Whoever has the gold, makes the rules.” 

But they underestimated the passion of UVA supporters and their outrage at foul play. Slate’s John Dickerson writing on June 22 suggested the Rector’s coup d’├ętat entailed an unreasonably high degree of risk and advised: “When you’re climbing a tricky pass on El Capitan, don’t wear an anvil.”

The denouement of this drama took place at the special meeting of the full Board on June 26, where, by unanimous vote, Dr. Sullivan was re-instated as President. At the same time the Board expressed confidence in Ms. Dragas’ leadership. This apparently was a compromise, as Dr. Sullivan had previously declared she would not accept reinstatement unless Ms. Dragas resigned. Outside the Thomas Jefferson-designed Rotunda where the meeting was held, student and faculty awaiting the result broke into cheers at the news that Dr. Sullivan would regain the presidency.

The brouhaha drew national media attention, questioning the manner of dismissal, while musing on the financial strains faced by universities in general and public universities in particular.
Finding and retaining superior talent to run not only universities but any nonprofit these days is difficult enough without the example of a board such as UVA’s engaging in shabby and underhanded behavior. Some may lay blame on the fact that the UVA board is politically appointed and/or that is made up largely of big donors.  But any governing body in the nonprofit world, however constituted, can ill afford to make decisions in such a manner, which runs the risk of alienating the very constituencies - in this case, students, faculty, and alumni - it is pledged to support.

At a high cost to UVA’s reputation, it took sixteen days for the Board to right the wrong.  Let the Biblical admonition of reaping what one has sown be taken to heart.
Comments always welcome