Stephen Joel Trachtenberg joined the chorus of critics taking aim at the University of Virginia’s governing board Tuesday, weighing in on the controversy surrounding last week’s abrupt resignation of the elite public university’s president.
Trachtenberg, who served 19 years as GW’s president and is often considered a leading authority on higher education issues, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that three board members’ decision to oust two-year president Teresa Sullivan was an “arbitrary, impulsive initiative.” Nobody on the 16-member board has outlined reasons for Sullivan’s resignation.
“Presidents understand that trustees have the right to hire and fire,” Trachtenberg said. “Trustees must understand that if they hire or fire without due cause and due process, transparency, prudence and soundness, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to hire the next president.”
Trachtenberg also told the D.C. local news station WUSA 9 on Wednesday that three of the university’s Board of Visitors should resign.
“What’s clear is the process they used to affect their will was totally irregular and inappropriate. I’ve never heard of a Board holding a secret meeting where three members, a cabal essentially, get together and decide they’re going to replace the president,” said Trachtenberg, who retired in 2007 and is now president emeritus and a University professor of public service.
The turmoil has shaken up the Charlottesville, Va.-based university, which sits about 100 miles from the District. A top computer science professor and the university’s vice rector both resigned Tuesday, and student and faculty leaders, as well as other board members, have called for Sullivan to be reinstated.
Each of the Board of Visitors’ 16 members is appointed by the state’s governor, which Trachtenberg said means “political ties may trump other characteristics.”
“But that should not deter a trustee’s ability to rise above partisanship for the good of academic rigor, stability, and excellence,” he added.
Emails obtained by several news organizations, including the campus newspaper The Cavalier Daily, showed some board members were dissatisfied with Sullivan’s lack of vision for potential plans to grow online learning. Sullivan has defended taking an “incrementalist” approach to the changes sweeping higher education.