Last month, we noted that eminent computer scientist Bill Wulf had taken the unprecedented step of resigning from the University of Virginia to protest the ousting of UVa president Teresa Sullivan by the university’s Board of Visitors. The Board reinstated Sullivan as president a week later, and since then, many in our community have wondered if Bill would rejoin the UVa faculty.
Bill has maintained his stance despite pleas from his colleagues — faculty and administration alike — including Sullivan herself. Yesterday, he publicly released a letter explaining his rationale for not “un-resigning.” Here it is, in its entirety:
UVa facuty & others,
Just in case you missed it, I am one of the folks that publicaly resigned over the forced resignation of President Sullivan. I resigned because I deeply care about the University, I thought President Sullivan was doing a great job, and thus felt deeply that this action, and the way it was taken, was profoundly damaging to the University.
I was frankly surprised by the magnitude of the positive faculty and media reaction to my resignation — I don’t think of myself as the “marching in the street, and placard waving” type. So, after the initial flurry of email, except for bland replies to some, I have kept pretty quiet about the whole fiasco. But now I feel I need to voice a perspective on the solution to the underlying problem.
I have been asked by President Sullivan, my Dean, and even my departmental faculty, to “un-resign” — I have said NO, and the rest of this note is to explain to all of you why, and perhaps what it means to you. It is not because I don’t love UVa, and would love to rejoin its faculty — quite the opposite, it’s precisely because I do love and respect it so much!
Like most of you, I was delighted by the re-instatement of Terry Sullivan — but that, I my view, didn’t fix the underlying problem! As my original message noted, my wife and I have extensive experience in both executive positions and board positions in industry, academia, and government — we’ve seen the executive-to-board relationship from both sides, and in multiple contexts — and my judgment is that the current BOV is incompetent to govern UVa! Let me repeat — it’s incompetent for the task of governing UVa! I am more than willing to stipulate that the BOV members are smart, good and accomplished people — but to be competent on a board requires a significant understanding of the institution they are governing. That’s what is lacking!
The present BOV appointed by the Governor is 14 lawyers or corporate executives with no experience with academic governance, one part-time medic at John-Hopkins, and one CEO of a small university. Alas, they don’t even seem to know much about UVa! While fond of selectively quoting Jefferson out of context, they overlook the deeply philosophical fact that Mr. Jefferson’s design for UVa had *no* President or central administration — the faculty governed the University, and did so in an open collaborative way, not in secret meetings behind closed doors, with no faculty input. Total faculty control wouldn’t work for today’s larger university, BUT … the BOV’s instincts were that top-down, command and control management was “right” and so tried to impose it. Well, it’s not right for universities, especially for UVa — and in fact, the data says that it is not right for most corporations either! It certainly wasn’t right for the corporations that I ran! But my main point is that faculty involvement in university governance is central to all universities, and especially to UVa.
Moreover, the current BOV clearly didn’t even investigate the issue they expressed concern about — for example on-line presence of the University (seemingly a big deal in TS’s firing), but they apparently just reacted to the hype of recent announcements by some other universities without investigating UVa’s record on the subject. Well, our involvement in digital scholarship and learning goes back at least twenty years — I know because I was a principal in getting it started! Please note in the prior sentence I said scholarship AND education. Great universities are about both — not just mass teaching! And a future great UVa must be about both! The current BOV, or at least those involved in firing Terry Sullivan, pretty clearly doesn’t understand that.
Are these uninformed folks likely to make smart future decisions for UVa? Alas, I think not! Smart and accomplished as they may be individually in other contexts, they just don’t have the knowledge base to make good decisions for UVa.
Just imagine a board imposed upon General Motors that consisted of 14 smart/accomplished academics, but with no industrial experience, one Chevy customer, and the CEO of a mom-and-pop grocery store. Would that work? No, of course not! And the converse isn’t working here either! What we need is a significant fraction of the BOV to be folks that deeply understand academia, and UVa in particular — I have been astounded by how shallow and un-informed the comments by rector Dragas, for example.
I have a substantial list of distinguished current or former academic administrators that I know first hand, that are really bright and I would be happy to recommend them to serve on the BOV, and I’d even to be the first contact with them — but I haven’t been asked. Alas, they almost certainly didn’t make major contribution to the Governor’s campaign, so the chance of their selection under the current system are probably nil. BUT, it’s the system needs to be changed!
I am a more-than-a-tad concerned that the reinstatement of President Sullivan has taken a bit of wind out of the sails of faculty/student pressure for reform. In my view the time is not to compromise, but to stand for the principles of the University, and particularly the principle of faculty deeply involved its governance!! Corporate style boards (of which both my wife and I have deep experience) are NOT the model for the BOV — nor is “damn the torpedoes” top-down executive management — and the fact that the current BOV doesn’t understand that is damning and destructive, and says a lot about the selection criteria that chose them! We MUST fix the selection criteria!
Permit me to cycle back to my opening — I am not a “march and wave placards” type — partly because I find it intellectually repugnant, but also in no small measure because I don’t think it’s especially effective in our context. You may disagree. What I do think we need is a moderate, well-reasoned argument for why the structure of the BOV needs to be changed for the benefit of the University — and the state. But please note that I think the argument needs to be delivered to the folks that can effect that change and that the present process is a political one, and while I am not in favor of marching and placard waving, I also think our actions need to include political ones — just what those actions are should be needs to be a collective decision of the faculty, so I’ll stay silent on that for now.
But we DO need to act to fix the problem underlying President Sullivan’s firing! Will she stay long term, or would we be able to recruit a comparable replacement given the current BOV and the criteria for future BOV selections? In my view — NO! Unless there is fundamental change, UVa is on a downward spiral. It hurts me to the core! UVa has been SO special! To see it self-destruct is as painful as I can imagine.
Wm. A. Wulf
former University Professor, Dept. of Computer Science University of Virginia, and
President Emeritus, National Academy of Engineering