Hard Lessons at U.Va.

Thomas Jefferson must be rolling over in his grave.

The University of Virginia, which Mr. Jefferson founded, is in turmoil this week over the board of visitors’ ouster of popular President Teresa Sullivan and the shroud of secrecy surrounding the decision.

It looks increasingly likely that Sullivan will be reinstated following an outcry by students, faculty and alumni, but the damage to U.Va.’s image will take quite some time to heal.

Not surprisingly, the debacle is rich in communication lessons:

  • Not communicating with your organization’s stakeholders is never a good communication strategy. Under the Freedom of Information Act, news media obtained emails circulated among members of the U.Va. board of visitors, which revealed that it hired a Washington D.C. consulting firm for a “strategic communication project” at $750 an hour. The apparent “strategy” was to announce Sullivan’s forced resignation without explaining the reasons behind it. As a former communication consultant (who never earned anything near that hourly rate), I can tell you the board of visitors wasted its money on awful advice.
  • Information will eventually find its way out into the open, so you might as well communicate up front. Rector Helen Dragas, who was the driving force behind Sullivan’s ouster, finally explained the reasons behind it — something she should have done at the outset. “I agree with critics who say that we should have handled the situation better,” she said. “In my view, we did the right thing, the wrong way.” That is perhaps the understatement of the entire incident. While certainly there are times when information must be withheld — to comply with regulatory laws, for example — leaders must default to communicating more, not less, with stakeholders. Doing so avoids a lot of problems in the long run.
  • Lack of communication always results in a breakdown of trust. “Trust, one of our core institutional values, has been compromised,” said Carl Zeithaml, the interim president appointed by the board of visitors. Trust between leaders and those they lead is always the first victim when communication is compromised. And while trust can be destroyed in an instant, it can take months or even years to rebuild.
  • Civility wins the day — and lack of it erodes your position. Alumni, students and faculty have been understandably upset over the entire incident. But they harm their case by engaging in communication behaviors that are really no better than those exhibited by Dragas and her allies on the board of visitors. Sullivan exhorted her supporters to rise above: “I know that emotions are running high on Grounds,” she said, “but there is no excuse for abusing anyone with whom you disagree. Let me say in particular that Carl Zeithaml has been an exemplary member of the university community, and he and his family in no way deserve abusive language.”

Jefferson was clearly an advocate of open discourse and the free flow of information among leaders and those they lead. We can only wonder what he would think of what is happening to the institution he so carefully created.



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