Statement of Rector Helen Dragas to the Board of Visitors on June 26, 2012
I hereby call this special meeting of the Board of Visitors to order.
The last two weeks have been like no other in the University’s history. They have turned all eyes in higher education to our Academical Village. While the issues we face are not singular to UVA, the path we choose forward will be ours alone. Whichever way this vote today goes, I am convinced that this University, with all its complex components and talented people pulling together, can create that path, and emerge as an even stronger institution after our meeting today. I will have more to say on that later.
I’d like to reiterate an apology to the UVA community. Again let me state that we never wished nor intended to ignite such a reaction from the community of trust and honor that we love so dearly. Mindful of the constraints of the confidentiality of personnel matters and the non-disparagement agreements in the President's contract, we simply did not give adequate context to and reasoning behind our thinking, and the concerns we had about the direction of the University that led us to take the action that we did. Our communications department became quickly overwhelmed, preventing us from offering timely explanations. Into that vacuum arose stories of conspiracy theories and other inaccuracies, and the situation became enormously dramatized and emotionally charged. Although I put forward a detailed statement outlining specifics on ten of our principal concerns about UVA’s future last Thursday, that came too late, and I want to say once again to the University, and directly to my fellow Visitors: I sincerely apologize for the way this was presented, and you deserved better.
In his statement on Friday, Governor McDonnell issued us a clear mandate – we need to resolve this issue today, by way of a clear, detailed and unified position that this Board takes objectively, without pressure from outside groups. He has also made an important point about Board governance – that the buck rightly stops with us: “University Boards make key personnel and policy decisions that must be followed,” he said. So what we do today will indeed be the final word on this subject.
To that end, I want to close by acknowledging the sincere and heartfelt feelings that students, faculty, alumni, staff and donors have expressed to us over the past two weeks. Many of you have reached out to us personally in a thoughtful and constructive way. I want to say that I deeply respect your engagement and your sentiments on this issue. Like each of us on the Board, you have the best interests of the University at heart, and we appreciate the civil and constructive approach many of you have taken in voicing your opinions on this matter of great emotion.
I will now call on Heywood Fralin to introduce an important resolution that he has worked on for today’s meeting; I will speak to the substance of the resolution immediately following his remarks.
Statement on Motion
Prior to these events, there seemed to be a roadblock between the Board's sense of urgency around our future in a number of critical areas, and the Administration's response to that urgency. Also, many of our concerns about the direction of the University remained unknown to all but a few. This situation has now keenly focused the attention of the entire University community on the reality and urgency of the specific challenges facing the University – most of which, once again, are not unique to UVA – but whose structural and long-term nature do require a deliberate and strategic approach.
I believe real progress is more possible than ever now, because there is absolutely no denying that all of the wonderful people who make up this community are as awake and engaged as ever. At all levels, from the Board of Visitors (which used to be an irrelevant group to most of the UVA family), to the faculty and students, and all the way down to the building maintenance technician who has been courageously sending me supportive messages, people are focused not only on our values, but also on our challenges. Whereas before, the touchpoints and intersections among us were informative and interesting, now the work ahead will surely be charged with renewed passion and energy for accelerated progress in tackling the many challenges faced by every university today. It is unfortunate that we had to have a near-death experience to get here, but the University should not waste the enormous opportunity at hand.
This crisis has allowed us to see clearly how much we all share the goal of a University that is fully and richly equipped with a long-range strategy to meet the many challenges it will face in the future. To that end, the steps taken after today will impact how the University responds to a number of critical pressures that are being felt around the country in higher education, including the fragility of public resources, the role of technology, and issues of faculty workload and the quality of the student experience, to name but a few. Now, the University needs to be on the forefront of that change, whether it wants to or not. But leadership is in the DNA of this great place, and it will rise to meet these and other pressing needs of the future.
There are other good things that have come out come out of all this. First and foremost, I believe the values of honor, integrity and trust have been truly tested, and yes, cracks have manifested themselves. We, as a Board, breached the trust of the institution by not having a publicly noticed meeting to discuss a matter of such importance. On the other hand, we have been the target of, at times, vitriolic and dishonorable communication based on a mob mentality that has created by rumor and too little accountability from anonymous sources of information. This is plainly not the UVA way, and we are all heartened that a lot of that has been called out for what it is.
But values are platitudes and just empty words on monuments until they are truly tested. The trials of the last two weeks have given us all a unique opportunity to witness the true strength of character of this community, and that of its individual members. It has given us a keenly sharpened awareness of the critical importance of the values we espouse, and it has fostered much discussion about other values. My UVA email has been poetically blooming with words of love, grace, forgiveness, wisdom, and renewal. Yes, the garden of my inbox also has a lot of fertilizer in it as well. But this too shall pass.
As tumultuous as the last two weeks have been, they have produced a great deal of education and dialogue on Grounds concerning the University’s future, and the UVA family is more engaged than ever before on the issues we face together. You can hear focused, respectful conversations about the role and authority of a Board, the needs and concerns of the faculty, the very specific challenges that UVA faces, and the unique leadership role and responsibilities of the University President in meeting those challenges.
In addition to an appreciation of the challenges facing the University, we have also seen respectful statements on the Lawn, and in writing, all acknowledging how much students, faculty, deans and alumni love the University, and a willingness to come together in a shared purpose, both to heal emotions and to make real and measureable progress on the issues we face.
To that end, I want to say that I met with Terry Sullivan just before this meeting, and we had a very good conversation. We both acknowledged the difficulty of the last two weeks and the impact it has had on the UVA family. And, in our conversation, we have both come to the conclusion that it’s time to bring the UVA family back together.
As Rector and President, we actually have far more in common than not, and, working together in close communication, we can jointly agree upon the best strategic vision for the school, and a realistic and measureable roadmap to make that vision a reality. We have always respected each other greatly on a personal level, and still do. We also agree with Governor McDonnell on the importance of Board governance, and that the Board exists in large part to make difficult decisions for the good of the University. Most important, we both share the same goal – for UVA to reach its fullest potential as a 21st century Academical Village and remain a leader among Universities when it comes to innovation and the overall student experience.
Recognizing that, the Board should all come together – to bring this University quickly toward a process of healing that respects the Board’s governance, while also committing to faster and more measurable progress against a number of real challenges we all face as an institution.
We also both appreciate statements from many in the UVA family that have demonstrated a willingness to come together in a shared sense of purpose for progress and reform in these areas if an agreement could be reached. Last week’s statement by the Deans of the schools, as but one example, states, “there will be excitement, rededication and a real sense of accomplishment and hope for the future among all of our constituents if we can work out a middle path.”
For the good of the University, in working with Heywood and a number of others, this Board has found that middle path, and we look forward to working with President Sullivan, and our students, faculty, staff, alumni and donors to rebuilding a sense of mutual trust and redoubling our efforts to keeping UVA on the forefront of higher education now and well in the future.
For this reason, and for the good of the University, I support the resolution on the table to reinstate President Sullivan, and urge others on the Board to do so as well.