Reading the relentless coverage of the University of Virginia debacle is like dreaming about a train wreck in slow motion. I want to scream, “No!, NO!, GET OUT OF THE WAY!” but, as in a dream, I am paralyzed to act because it’s not really happening to me. But I’m probably having this dream because somewhere in my psyche as a college president I realize that very bad things can happen when governance processes go awry.
For those who are paying more attention to Roger Clemens (acquitted) than Teresa Sullivan (fired/resigned) or Helen Dragas (accused), here’s the synopsis: apparently out of the blue (but not really), the University of Virginia board chair (the Rector Helen Dragas) informed University President Teresa Sullivan that she had polled the board and had enough votes to fire her. This was a shock to Sullivan and the university community who have risen up in support of the president.
While Dragas has been vague about the actual issues, various news reports indicate that the board leaders were unhappy that the president did not move quickly enough to terminate various academic programs. The president has issued a statement in which she notes that, “Corporate-style top-down leadership does not work in a great university.” Nor, may I add, in most other places these days (see: an Army of One.)
Among the many dimensions of the story that will surely become a case study for future aspiring college presidents, this is a particularly unhappy moment for women’s drive toward equality in higher education. Ironically, in this week in which we celebrate the enactment of Title IX ensuring women’s equal treatment in education, we have this ugly spectacle in Virginia in which a woman leader fails to understand her job, with egregious consequences. Not President Sullivan, who is handling the mess with grace and style. But Rector Dragas, whose actions have damaged UVA considerably, to say nothing of the cause of women’s advancement in presidencies and board positions.
Does gender matter? Of course. Sure, at some level, we can read the story in a gender-neutral way and parse the facts and rumors to find out what really happened to cause this remarkable rift in the university’s leadership. Yes, there are clearly issues of style as well as substance, and culture — the notorious differences in management styles in corporate life versus the academy. Guys could do this, too, and we have plenty of cases to demonstrate just that.
But at another level, these two leaders were both “the first” women in their jobs, and for that reason they may both have carried some greater weight for excellence and effectiveness. Do women who shatter glass ceilings have to be better than the men who once lurked on the other side all to themselves? Yes. Quite simply, the weight of culture runs against women in power positions, and any excuse will do to make sure that their access to the corner office is rare. And women in power have to know that lurking under every rock is someone who wants to exploit their weaknesses as gender barriers; hence the term “cat fight” or other unsavory language specifically demeaning to women turns up in some online comments.
Leaders of color suffer the same unequal expectations and disparagement — consider some of the attacks on President Barack Obama, from the absurd “birther” gang to the various conspiracy theories about his religion or motivations. Leaders may desire a neutral, level playing field on which their work can be fairly assessed, but under the surface, little neutrality exists when race or gender are at play.
Rector Dragas’ actions are proving highly regrettable for many reasons — a complete breach of acceptable governance processes, undermining of a fine university’s reputation, needless ruination of the career of a president who seemed to be on the right track. Among the many regrettable notes, however, the one that strikes me as a grave concern is the way in which her poor judgment might set back the cause of women’s access to great university presidencies and board leadership positions. You can almost hear the ice clinking in the scotch glasses at the University Club: “Boys, this is what happens when we let the gals in.”
Women, listen up: we have got to be smarter than this if we want to make progress. We should be lifting as we climb, not sawing the rungs off the ladder behind us.
See more on this on my Huffington Post blog, “Presidential Politics (College Edition)”
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