Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It's Still a Mystery

You want the real story?  Okay, here goes: Helen Dragas and her sidekick the ingenious Passepartout were hunkered down over a beer in the smoky back room of a Charlottesville pleasure palace one night when Helen said "you know what would be cool?  Let's fire her sorry Texas ass, and the donors will go ballistic and we'll back down and then they give us lots more money than they ever planned on."

You find it far-fetched?  Well yes, but have you got a better story?  Has anybody yet come up with any even remotely plausible account of why a bunch of supposedly worldly adults (came up with, conspired in, signed  off on) such a crack-brained, ham-handed, wrong-footed, bowlegged, knock-kneed scheme in the first place?   Fire the President? Sure, let's do it. Oh wait, sorry, let's not.

The firing of Terry Sullivan at UVA remains, in short, entirely incomprehensible.   I guess you'd have to grant that she "didn't communicate with the board" in the sense that she apparently didn't see it coming (where's Judas when you need him?).  Maybe it is also true that she was having trouble with fund-rising, but I'd be interested  to know how she stacks up on the standard measure we are supposed to use for money managers--not how well she did intrinsically, but how well she did as measured against the market as a whole. These have not been, after all, great years for fund-raising anywhere.  

The fact that she didn't please the board as a is, of course, just about entirely irrelevant to the question of her intrinsic skills as a manager--from the look of things, you'd get better management advice from a gang of Charlottesville kindergarteners.  If the core issue was the taint of "consultative management"--that in running a great University, you've got to play the roll of border collie, with a growl here and a nip there to cajole all the sheep (ahem) in the right direction--then I'd say she is onto something.  Woodrow Wilson, who had his own presidential disappointments, said that trying to run Princeton was like trying to move a cemetery.  You go too fast and--well, look what happens.  Whether she can actually wind up transforming the University--well, now that she is back in the job, maybe we will get an answer to that one.

Exactly what caused the board to back down so abjectly and so fast--ah, on that one I suspect we can look forward to some leakage over the next few days.  But in trying to identify causes, I wouldn't put too much emphasis on the visible public uproar.  I don't think the uproar is the kind of thing that would drive the governor into his shrill threat to fire the whole board (which, as it happens, it appears he can't do anyway).  I'd look rather to some deep pockets, maybe former board members who let him know with  a full soundtrack that his school would never see another penny of their money, not one penny until the deed was undone. 

 Ironically, this probably does mean that she'll find fund-raising actually a bit easier, rather than harder, at least for the moment (as Joel points out for the duration of her 15 minutes, she'll probably also be a welcome guest in foundation board rooms).  Which brings back to square one, supra.  No, of course I don't believe it, but do you have a better?

1 comment:

Ken Houghton said...

The reinstatement came the day before the deadline set by the Governor to either explain themselves or be fired en masse. I'm certainly that's coincidence.

I'm spreading the rumor that Katie Couric called the governor and informed him in no uncertain terms that her Legacy to UVa would go to the VA instead if one more person came up to her on the street and offered condolences about her Bachelor's degree in English being useless, but that's about as confirmable as your theory.