College boards turn to business-style approaches

Sullivan said: "Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university."

A popular University of Virginia president is forced to resign because board members thought she wasn’t working quickly enough to address diminished funding and other challenges. Purdue University hires as its new president a governor who lacks academic experience but is adept at raising money and cutting education spending.

And the president of the University of Texas enlists a committee of high-profile corporate executives to examine the school’s budget and operations.

The governing boards of colleges and universities are increasingly demanding that their presidents perform more like corporate chief executives, much to the chagrin of academics who say treating colleges as businesses doesn’t fit the mission of higher education.

Experts say the recent moves largely have been spurred by federal and state funding cuts.

In Charlottesville, Va., the Board of Visitors ousted U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan earlier this month because some members thought she was moving too slowly to address shrinking government funding, develop more online courses and position U.Va.’s hospital to better compete with private health care providers.

Sullivan was reinstated Tuesday in a unanimous vote by the board nearly three weeks after her secretive ouster. The Faculty Senate and college deans stood behind Sullivan as students, faculty and alumni protested the forced resignation.

In the days before the vote, Rector Helen Dragas said Sullivan’s self-described “incrementalist” style stood in the way of the university’s long-term success. In defending her performance since she took office in August 2010, however, Sullivan said: “Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university.”

Late last week, Dragas issued a statement describing the concerns that led the board to Sullivan’s removal. Among them were a lack of an overall strategic plan and a list of 10 difficulties the school was facing. The recurrent themes in the list included competition, technology and scarce resources. Many also referenced a lack of planning or leadership.

“For some time, the Board of Visitors has been concerned about the following difficult challenges … and we concluded that their structural and long-term nature demanded a deliberate and strategic approach, not an incremental one,” Dragas said in the statement.

Dragas said Tuesday she supported Sullivan’s reinstatement and the two pledged to work together. But the president acknowledged that differences remain.

“I do not ask that we sweep any differences under a rug, but rather we engage each other with candor and respect,” she said after the vote.

The ordeal has sparked a debate on the merits of traditional academic leadership versus results-driven management.

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