Tuesday, July 3, 2012

I Thought Politicians Were Supposed to Understand Politics?

An interesting and surprising bit of news today:
Virginia’s Governor Reappoints Rector of UVa Board
Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Helen Dragas has been unfairly vilified; that she isn't really an ogre with horns; and that she really does have the best interests of UVa at heart. It is nevertheless publicly-confirmed knowledge that:

• She engineered the ouster of the president of UVa on extremely short notice, using a series of one-on-one meetings so that no one would know what was happening ahead of time.
• She did so without first developing any kind of a communications plan - not even a set of coherent bullet points - to deal with the inevitable questions that would follow.
• She and a few others on the Board of Visitors took this action on the basis of a casual and largely faulty reading of a few articles in the business and higher education press, as was documented in a series of emails uncovered by various journalists.
• The manner in which the ouster was conducted caused UVa's regional accreditor to raise serious questions about its compliance with accreditation standards.

To put Dragas' reappointment in terms of her motives entirely misses the point. What is entirely open to question is her competence. In the events of the past few weeks we did not see an effective leader - we saw someone with precious little idea of what she is doing. Failure at this level usually gets you fired, not reappointed.

Moreover, the bonfires of burning bridges in these past few weeks are big enough to contribute to the heat wave currently sweeping the eastern seaboard. How well, exactly, is Dragas going to work with a reinstated President Sullivan? How seriously is the faculty - now demonstrated to have significant power - going to take a Board still being run by the same person who caused this problem in the first place? Will Bill Wulf, the famous computer scientist, come back to the faculty knowing that Dragas is still at the helm?

You would think that a seasoned politician like Governor McDonnell would understand these things. Even if Dragas really isn't at fault, and really is much better than she comes across in this sad set of events, she is mortally wounded as a leader at UVa. Sometimes, you just have to accept the consequences and fall on your sword.

Apparently, the good governor does not have the sense to see any of this. And so it is likely that Moody's prediction of additional governance conflicts at research universities will get a boost from the same people who started this mess in the first place.

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