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Remarks by President Sullivan at the opening session of the full Board

Thursday, November. 10, 2011

Madame Rector, members of the Board of Visitors: Good afternoon.

Yesterday there were two sociologists heading AAU universities. Today I am the only one. I am referring to the abrupt termination last night of Graham Spanier’s presidency at The Pennsylvania State University. It has prompted me to spend these few moments with you at the beginning of this meeting discussing the nature of presidential leadership at universities.

With respect to the specifics of the incident at Penn State, I know nothing more than what the media have reported. I do believe it is important to reiterate the fundamental principle of American criminal law, that the men under indictment are assumed innocent until proven guilty. The allegations, however, are so serious that any president must ask herself, “If this happened as alleged, then could it have happened here? How do I know that it can’t happen here?’

No president, no matter how personally noble and sagacious, can prevent every crime. Universities bring together thousands of people daily, in very close geographic proximity, and despite the selectivity we practice in admissions and employment, these are still human beings, beset by all the frailties and weaknesses of humanity. But what we can do, as a matter of policy and practice, is to create the conditions that nurture the best in us, while remaining alert and active whenever we encounter misconduct. More specifically, we function best when we seek to ensure in our community that we have good people, good processes, and good systems.

As for good people, Provost Simon will be convening the deans in a retreat in a few weeks to spend a half day discussing the single question, “How do we hire the best faculty in the world?” We anticipate a lot of faculty hiring over the next five to seven years, and we will be looking for the people who are thought leaders in their fields – but we are also looking for people who will embrace the values of this institution, who will take seriously their responsibilities.

We are entrusted daily with the sons and daughters of this Commonwealth and other parts of the world, and we are entrusted daily with the care of patients and their families. We must ensure that we subscribe to the highest values in our interactions with anyone’s children. What is true of our faculty must be true of our staff as well. In doing my own search for the COO and the Provost, I was especially attentive to the issue of character. Both Michael Strine and John Simon are stewards not only of our assets but also of our mission.

I do believe that tone at the top is important, and I have sought to send a message to this community that respect for the individual, doing the right thing, caring for one another and making every decision with consideration for our values are how we will do business. Not everyone will agree with how I enact these values. There are inevitably conflicts between individuals, or disagreements about resource allocation, in which each side will claim that their position is the righteous one and I have been hypocritical.

That is why we need good processes. A good process leads to good decisions because it requires us to call to mind the important considerations that precede the decision. A good hiring process leads us to consider values such as expertise, diversity, and character. A good personnel evaluation process leads us to offer honest feedback about an employee’s performance, just as grading gives us an opportunity to provide feedback to a student.

In the executive session tomorrow, you will evaluate my first year of performance as a president. I have done a similar evaluation for my direct reports, and we have developed a merit increase process this year that requires a written evaluation to justify any increase in pay. I plan for such opportunities for feedback become standard here, because the feedback makes us better. When we make a mistake, a good process leads us to review the mistake, acknowledge it, and try to learn from it.

Let me add that a good process also helps the evaluator. I commended one of our vice presidents, in his annual evaluation, because he had the courage to confront me when he thought I had made a mistake. I also must be willing to accept feedback, positive or negative, if I am to lead effectively, and I must set a tone that says that bad news can rise to the top of this organization without any messenger being shot for bearing it.

Finally, individuals may fail and processes may fail. That is why we need good systems. In the case of protecting children, the heart of the matter at Penn State, most universities, including UVa, view children as a vulnerable population that deserves special protection. We have special protections for children in research; we have protective measures in our day care centers, in our pediatric clinics, and in other places on Grounds that routinely deal with children. With such systems in place, it becomes clear that having a child in a locker room – the alleged case at Penn State – is an outlier, because that’s a place without special protection for a child.

Good systems lead us to identify the outliers and change our practice. I have spent some time this past year looking for organizational outliers, anomalies that are out of line with good practice. In some cases I have changed reporting lines to provide better supervision. I have made use of our internal auditor, initiating the practice of change-of-management audits to provide routine oversight, to be sure that no office is an outlier in terms of our policies. I will continue to look for ways to use good systems to support good outcomes.

As a mother and a university president, I grieve over the events at Penn State. I want UVa to learn from negative events that happen at any university; most of all, I want us to learn from events we experience here, and to model for our students how we can continue to learn and improve. I pledge myself, imperfect and fallible as I acknowledge myself to be, to lead by example.