University of Virginia in turmoil after ousting popular president in secrecy

Last week’s firing of the school’s president outraged students and faculty. Here are some basic communication lessons it should have remembered. UPDATE.

Thomas Jefferson must be rolling over in his grave.

The University of Virginia (U.Va.) which Jefferson founded, is in turmoil after the board of visitors ousted Teresa Sullivan, the popular president of the university, amid a shroud of secrecy.

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 some time to heal.

Not surprisingly, the debacle is rich in communication lessons:

1. Not communicating with your organization’s stakeholders is never a good strategy.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, news media obtained emails from members of the U.Va. board of visitors that revealed they hired a Washington D.C., consulting firm for a “strategic communication project” at $750 an hour. The “strategy” was to announce Sullivan’s forced resignation without explaining the reasons behind the decision.

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.

2. Information will eventually find its way into the open, so communicate up front.

Rector Helen Dragas, the driving force behind Sullivan’s ouster, finally explained the reasons behind it. This is 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 there are certainly times when you must withhold information—to comply with regulatory laws, for example—leaders must communicate more with stakeholders, not less. Doing so avoids a lot of problems in the long run.

3. Lack of communication always breaks down 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. While you can destroy trust in an instant, it can take months, or even years, to rebuild.

4. Civility wins the day; lack of it erodes your position.

Alumni, students and faculty have been understandably upset over the incident, but they harm their case when they engage in communication behaviors 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 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.

UPDATE: On Tuesday, June 26, the board of visitors voted unanimously to reinstate Sullivan as president.

Robert Holland is employee communications manager for a Fortune 500 company in Richmond, Va. He blogs at Communication at Work, where a version of this post first appeared.

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