August 15, 2012 — The simplest and most effective way for a university's governing board and its president to sustain and improve upon high quality is to effectively work together – closely together.
That message was one of the table-setting themes presented by an expert on higher education governance as the University of Virginia Board of Visitors began its two-day annual retreat on Wednesday in Richmond.
Presidents and boards that succeed with this key relationship put their schools in better position to make it through the current period of extraordinary challenges and competition.
"That's the holy grail. That's the north star," said Terry MacTaggart, senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards for Universities and Colleges and a former university chancellor. He was invited to the retreat to facilitate discussion about board governance.
MacTaggart's appearance at the board retreat comes on the heels of the University's most severe governance breakdown – the forced resignation and then reinstatement of President Teresa A. Sullivan in June – and was presented as part of the University leadership's attempts to put the episode behind it and move on.
Sullivan's resignation was announced June 10, and she was reinstated by a unanimous board vote on June 26, following weeks of turmoil and tremendous pressure from students, alumni and faculty. The dramatic episode also brought issues of higher education governance, seen through the lens of U.Va., into national focus. The process leading to Sullivan's resignation has been criticized as secretive, lacking transparency and contrary to the University's tradition of shared governance.
Rector Helen E. Dragas opened the session by offering an apology for the recent leadership controversies that "at best, have been distractions from the important work ahead of us."
"My hope for this retreat is that we can lay a foundation for collective and collaborative success," Dragas said during her opening remarks, "that we sow seeds to join together and find true common ground with President Sullivan, the university community, alumni and the greater community of Virginia citizens."
In her initial remarks, Sullivan highlighted big-picture challenges.
"I think this is an important time for all of us together to be able to step back and reflect on the conditions that affect all of higher ed, but U.Va. particularly," she said.
MacTaggart zeroed in on a handful of major forces influencing higher education. Among them: a "shrinking pie" of resources, disruptive innovation, a questioning of the quality of a university education, and a "higher bar" for boards that requires them to do far more than protect a university reputation and operate with basic integrity.
"None of this has to be a tsunami of destruction, but it can be if you're not well led," he said.
Great boards, he said, show an ability to create positive change and demonstrate leadership in concert with a university's president.
During early discussion, board members pointed to the many challenges of higher education. John L. Nau III said universities must better gauge whether students are being prepared for the realities of an economy still dealing with the effects of recession. He also said excellent universities such as U.Va. must recognize a "widening gap between private education and public education" and figure out the best way to close that gap early rather than waiting until it's too late to address.
William H. Goodwin Jr., appointed June 29 by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell as a special adviser to the board, challenged whether the resource "pie is shrinking." He's more optimistic about the future, but warned that people must collaborate to succeed.
"I do think we've got to start working together as a society," Goodwin said. "We need to chat and work out our differences."
The board retreat continues Thursday, with more MacTaggart-led discussion, Sullivan's report, and an admissions report from Dean of Admission Greg W. Roberts.
– by McGregor McCance