Dragas to Kington: 'Why we can't afford to wait'
"Mark and I will both be in Charlottesville tomorrow and would appreciate a meeting with you."
So begins the unraveling of a presidency. And a University.
It was Thursday, June 7 that the above message was sent by University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas to an apparently unsuspecting Teresa Sullivan, less than 24 hours before Dragas and Vice-Rector Mark Kington delivered the news that they were demanding the president's resignation.
"I can be back on grounds by 5," replies Sullivan, who had a previously scheduled off-campus retreat with her vice-presidents. "Is there anything you would like me to prepare?"
The electronic exchanges were released by the University in response to a records request from the student newspap er (and then piggybacked by other news organizations). They provide insight into the mind of Dragas, a leader whose institution fell into turmoil after she and Kington unceremoniously ousted the president over what appears, in large part, to be an alleged failure to leap into online education.
A week earlier, on May 31, Dragas emailed Kington with some of her thinking including an email passing along a link to a story in the Wall Street Journal. Dragas seemingly alludes to the upcoming ouster in her subject line: "why we can't afford to wait."
The article, an op/ed by John Chubb and Terry Moe, points to edX, the partnership into which Harvard and MIT have invested $60 million to create an open-source online system to educate millions of students around the globe.
"The nation, and the world, are in the early stages of a historic transformation," write the authors, "in how students learn, teachers teach, and schools and school systems are organized."
If Dragas read the entire article, she would have noticed that the authors warn that online education as practiced by edX is still in nascent stages and may turn out to be a misstep.
"There is," they note, "no revenue stream and no business plan to sustain it."
Voicemail messages left Wednesday morning with Dragas and Kington, a day after Kington resigned for his role in the UVA debacle, were not immediately returned.
On June 3, Dragas and Kington get an email from UVA alum Jeffrey C. Walker. A founder of J.P. Morgan Partners and a member of the Private Equity Hall of Fame, Walker tells them that with top universities like Stanford already embracing online education, UVA must get on board to help under-served students (and thereby please the General Assembly).
"Top of the line universities," Walker writes, "need to have strategies or will be left behind."
"Jeff, Your timing is impeccable," responds Dragas. "The BOV is squarely focused on UVA's developing such a strategy and keenly aware of the rapidly accelerating pace of change."
On Monday, June 4, Dragas sends Kington another link, this one a Chronicle of Higher Education story that asserts that college leaders need to innovate quickly.
"The sky is indeed falling," writes author Ann Kirshner, citing disruptive technologies, precarious student debt, and the declining rank of Americans holding a college degree. The article portrayed the academy as fearful and unwilling to change.
"Good article," Dragas tells Kington.
Interestingly, the emails– which appear to have been released from Dragas and Kington's own email accounts– make no mention of Peter Kiernan. Until recently the chair of the Darden School Foundation, Kiernan asserted in an email he broadcast to Darden Trustees and others that he was working on "this project" at the behest of Dragas and "two important Virginia alums."
His leaked email made extensive use of the term "strategic dynamism," a business expression denoting a willingness to change and change quickly.
"Terry Sullivan is doing EXACTLY what the Board of Visitors hired her to do, and doing it well," former UVA Board of Visitors member Austin Ligon, a founder of CarMax, writes on his Facebook page several days after the ouster. "Unfortunately, the new leadership, neither of whom have ever run a large organization, have confused activity with accomplishment."
The released emails show that as news of the ouster began spreading on June 10, Robert Bruner, dean of UVA's financially independent Darden School, sends a missive to his constituents that reads in part: "History will judge this particular action by the Board of Visitors, but the present context certainly affirms the urgency."
"Bob Bruner is at the top of his game– we are so fortunate to have him," Kington then enthuses to Dragas. "As you said today, Darden is a near and visible template for much of what we seek."
By the next day, with a media firestorm already raging and faculty and student protests underway, Vice President Michael Strine forwards a reporter's query to Kington, who then forwards it to Dragas asking for her thoughts on a single question.
"Maybe a modicum of candor is called for?" he asks.
There is no response from Dragas in the released emails.
On June 5, three days before the fateful meeting with Sullivan, Dragas sends Kington the graduation address delivered at Williams College two days earlier and published online by the New Yorker as a "timely" contribution to the matter at hand, the presidency that had fallen out of their favor.
"The sooner you're able to see clearly that your best hopes and intentions have gone awry, the better," physician Atul Gawande told the Williams graduates. "You have more room to pivot and adjust. You have more of a chance to rescue. You cannot let yourself become paralyzed by fear."
That sounds a lot like a definition of strategic dynamism.
Note: The original online version of this story misspelled the name of doctor/author Atul Gawande, and it also called Darden "independent and profitable," a characterization which Darden disputes and one which we rewrote for print as "financially independent."This story is a part of the The ousting of a president special.