There’s been a lot of discussion recently on the removal of Teresa Sullivan as the President of the University of Virginia. You can read about it here or Mark’s excellent summary and commentary here, for a couple of summaries, or just search for more details because there is certainly no shortage of information. There are many theories as to why it may have happened but, what is completely clear from almost every source, Teresa Sullivan had managed to make impressive levels of positive change happen and with the agreement and support of a large percentage of her faculty and administrators.
Of course, all of us want to know the real reasons ‘why’ behind this decision because if an apparently successful President can get fired there must be a good reason. Right?
Despite wanting to speak to the Board of Visitors in open session, Sullivan has only been offered a closed session and, from what both she and the board have released, we have no real information to go on.
This is a catastrophic failure of transparency – one of the qualities that we (should) cherish as educators because it is the core of our objectivity, our ability to replicate results and of a fair system. At the start of every semester, I tell the students how they can earn their marks, what I expect, what their deadlines are, what the penalties are, where they can find our policies, what these policies mean to them and, believe me, I consider myself as bound to these statements as I do to my marriage vows. (And I am exceedingly married.) If I don’t tell my students what they need to do, then they have a black box model – they try inputs, see outputs and try to map one to the other. I don’t want them to waste time on this because I want them to learn the important stuff. By being open and transparent in my approach to teaching, we focus on the right things and work out how to do what I want, rather than guessing (and probably getting it wrong).
We can talk about the influence of boards, or unpopular decisions, as much as we want but the issue here is that the next President of UVa had better work out pretty quickly what the secret transformation is concealed inside that Black Box or they will join Teresa Sullivan on the outside. How can you attract someone with the values that you should expect to have in this position, if you can’t even tell the world how they didn’t meet a secret set of rules, apparently put in place by a small group of people.
Telling people what they need to do, giving them guidance on how to do it, being open and transparent about what these requirements are, for all comers and at all times, are the cornerstones of a fair, balanced and modern education system.
It’s a shame that the Board of Visitors at University of Virginia appear to have forgotten this.