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Have you been keeping up with events at the University of Virginia this summer? Rarely is the drama of higher education governance staged for such a public audience. In case you weren’t paying attention, here’s a timeline:

  • June 10: It is announced that Teresa Sullivan will step down as president of the university.
  • June 10–27: Students protest; faculty and deans call for reinstatement; alumni paint bold messages on cardboard; the university community is in an uproar.
  • June 27: The university board of visitors votes unanimously to reverse their previous decision and reinstate Sullivan.

There seem to be significant philosophical differences between Teresa Sullivan and Helen Dragas, the chair of the board, on how best to lead the University of Virginia into the future. But why was this firing so contentious? I think one article summed it up nicely: “Here was the board of a top school sacking a well-regarded leader without evidence of wrongdoing, unpopularity, or political missteps.”

The blowback may have been more about perceptions than actual substance. The deeper issues here — the purpose of public university education, the importance of a liberal arts curriculum, the speed at which universities ought to embrace new educational technologies — weren’t necessarily the reason for the ruckus.

Rather, to many observers, the board’s action lacked transparency and appeared underhanded — maybe even political. This may be a misperception, but perceptions are important, especially when dealing with a community as fraught as a university.

In Trust will be looking at the University of Virginia case more closely in the months to come. Is there a lesson here for seminary boards?

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