Helen Dragas, Chair of the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia, came to her position from a career as CEO of Dragas Companies, a real estate and construction firm. She brought to her position a reputation for resolve and decisiveness, which she demonstrated when she fired University President Teresa Sullivan with, initially at least, the support of 15 members of the 16 member Board. The Board was comprised almost entirely of individuals who, like Dragas, are heads of businesses or have business backgrounds. No reasons were given for Sullivan’s firing; the consensus opinion was that Dragas and some major donors wanted better cooperation from the President in bringing the University closer to a business model in its operations.
Dragas was appointed by a Democrat and has given money to Democratic politicians, so her action cannot be ascribed to a Republican Party agenda. However, it is hard not to see in this university leadership crisis the same downsides of a business background and culture at play that would be at play if Mitt Romney, touting his business credentials for the job, became President. It is hard to translate the goal of making money off of building and selling houses to nurturing the values of a great institution of higher learning. It is hard to translate buying up distressed companies, making money, often, off of their destruction rather than their improved operations, to guiding a nation to greater security and well-being for its citizens.
Autocratic decision-making style is not appropriate in either case. The Sullivan firing followed a secretive and abbreviated process that might be termed “model” CEO decision making. The firing immediately led to the resignation of one of UVA’s star academics, who clearly did not see his role as a division chief in a construction firm following orders. Romney has been noted for his secretive style as governor of Massachusetts.
Accountability for the Dragas decision and the swift reinstatement of President Sullivan came partly as a result of outraged student demonstrations in support of Sullivan. The chief mechanism for keeping a President of the United States democratically accountable are elections. If Romney is elected and doesn’t do well, then he can be “fired” at the next election. However, that scenario assumes that after four years of a Romney presidency, the lines of accountability will remain clear after outsourcing of government functions to corporate supporters and unlimited political money channeled from the top 1 percent to political campaigns. The chorus of students, professors, and graduates cannot turn around a national election. The answer is clear: we must work to re-elect President Obama.