On Sunday, June 10, the University of Virginia released the news that Teresa Sullivan, a president with just two years’ tenure, had been asked to resign. I talked at length with Coy Barefoot on WINA Newsradio 1070, Charlottesville: Right Now on the topic of how the news has been handled.
The challenge with releasing news such as this is that no matter what it’s going to be a shock. There are going to be questions that are either unanswerable or not available for discussion, based on legally binding arrangements among the affected parties. The decision to hold the press conference on a Sunday morning was smart; missing the Sunday paper news cycle and letting the community wrap their collective minds around the information before the opening of business on Monday sidestepped a lot of immediacy in the need to be reactive. Of course, a sudden dismissal of this kind can rock the reputation of a university and of a community that depends so heavily on a university as its major employer, and UVa should be mindful and careful to monitor its online reputation as discussion of Sullivan’s dismissal ensues.
In crisis communications, we urge clients to share news with transparency and reassurance, and the University has focused their messaging on the future: what steps the University is taking to recruit and place a new president. While explanations for the action are somewhat vague and unsatisfying to the community, it’s likely that very few details beyond what we know now will be revealed.
What do you think about how the University has handled the news?
From C’ville Weekly:
“Around 11:30am Sunday, students and faculty received an e-mail from UVA Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington announcing that Sullivan would resign on August 15. Sullivan, who was quoted in the e-mail, said she and the Board had “a philosophical difference in opinion,” but didn’t elaborate.
At an emergency meeting with vice presidents and deans later the same day, Dragas briefly discussed the budgetary hardships faced by the Board and implied a difference of priorities between members and President Sullivan.
“We have calls internally for resolution of tough financial issues that require hard decisions in resource allocation,” Dragas wrote in a memo summarizing the meeting that was posted on UVAToday. She said the compensation of UVA’s employees is continuing to decline, and the challenge of filling vacated spots is “truly an existential threat to the greatness of UVA.”
The Board still has personal respect for Sullivan, she wrote, but indicated it wants a leader who is more bold and proactive on tackling difficult decisions.
“We are living in a time of rapidly accelerating change in both academia as well as in health care,” Dragas said at a press conference on Sunday.
“That environment, we believe, calls for a different approach to leadership.”
I expect more honesty and forthrightness from a public university. It is entirely insufficient to report that the cause of the resignation as simply a “difference in opinion.” As a public institution they have obligations that don’t extend to either corporations or private universities. The Board’s responsibility isn’t to protect the departing president’s reputation, but to communicate precisely why, after only two years, they would compel her to resign. Malfeasance? Ethics violations? Fraud? If they don’t fill in the blanks then the rumor mill will start working overtime.
I felt that the timing was intentionally poor, as it came after two major university weekends (Commencement and Reunions), so that no parents or alumni would be upset before potentially making contributions. A Sunday morning in June also showed that they were trying to avoid the news cycle a bit and possibly hoping to slip this under some people’s radars (as if).
More importantly, I think the Rector’s comments were not at all open or transparent in any way. She said a lot of words, yet managed to communicate almost nothing.
As a PR professional myself, my take is the BOV has created a much deserved crisis management nightmare for itself. They acted in secrecy. They failed to build consensus. Then on a quiet June morning, they dropped a bomb whose impact will be reverberating for some time to come. When given the opportunity to explain their actions, they barely touched on the reasons for a popular leader’s sudden departure. And now, by remaining silent over the past few days, they have completely lost control of the story.
Meanwhile, statements like this from Leonard Sandridge, one of UVA’s most respected leaders, are starting to percolate in the press:
“I think history will show that she performed in the time that she was here in an extraordinary manner,” said Leonard Sandridge, a former chief operating officer at U-Va. who served under Sullivan’s predecessor, John T. Casteen. Sandridge said Sullivan understood the operations of a major research university “as well as anyone I have ever seen.”
[As quoted by the Washington Post]
IUntil there are some satisfactory answers to some very basic questions, this story isn’t going away.