It’s amazing what you can learn by looking around yourself and asking questions. Like the situation that has just about been completed at the University of Virginia. A wonderful business management example unfolds before your eyes.
You start with the University itself. An institution that is steeped in pride and tradition- even if they are not truly in concert with reality. An institution that is being rocked by change all around it- even if they want to keep a steady course (or not). An institution beholden to its stakeholders.
UVa, as it is commonly called, is almost 200 years old. It was started by Thomas Jefferson as an academical village, where the professors and students all lived among one another on the “grounds” (no campus, here), a rectangular piece of Lawn (yes, it’s capitalized by the demands of the place) surrounded by classrooms and living quarters. Where professors are called “Mister” (and about equally now, “Maam”), unless their “Doctor” obtains from the field of medicine. Where the elite UVa students today vie to live, as opposed to the manifold dormitories that extend and meander away from this initial village (akin to the center of a town). Where folks claim (they no longer do so, in reality) to cheer their football team as “guys in ties and girls in pearls”. Where each student used to voice the promise, “On my honor as a gentleman” to not cheat on exams or homework. (The “honor code” still portends, but there are now women who attend the University.)
UVa prides itself as the “Harvard” of the South. Not that such a proclamation has any proof behind it, but it explains a great deal of the attitude of the place. It is steeped in the Southern traditions, for all the good and the bad associated with them. Until a little more than 30 years ago, it hosted the biggest drunken brawl you had ever seen – annually- down in the “Mad Bowl”. Yet, the students did manage to obtain fine education in fields as diverse as English, Business, Law, Nuclear Science, Astronomy, among them. (These were the programs that were among the elite in the nation.)
Given that background, we arrive at today’s university, a nominal state school, where the bulk of its money arrives from alumni donations. As recent as 4 decades ago, its annual budget was sustained by the coffers of the Commonwealth of Virginia. But, now, the Commonwealth grudgingly supplies only about 25% of the funds needed by the place. (Note: This is not the only state institution, nor the only state with such a change in funding. And, that, too is part of this multi-part story.)
Theoretically, the University is governed by a 16 member Board of Visitors. Individuals appointed by the Governor of the Commonwealth. Until recently, this board was constituted with folks appointed by the current and previous governors in about equal numbers. One could wonder what are the qualifications necessary to be appointed to the board; in a phrase- political connections (read donations).
The Rector (akin to the Chair of the Board) was Helen Dragas, a second generation home building executive (her dad started the company), appointed to the board by the previous governor (a Democrat), and elected Rector in 2011 under the current governor (Republican). At the same time another woman, Teresa Sullivan, began her term as the President of the University, to succeed the beloved, retiring, 20 year veteran of that position, Dr. John Casteen.
Dr. Sullivan recently heralded from the University of Michigan, another state school of venerable reputation, where she was the Provost (the #2 executive position). A woman, a non-Southerner… in other words, the penultimate “Other”.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue our studies from these “auspicious beginnings”.