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Sullivan, Sun, Secrecy — Get Us Out Of Here

Photo courtesy of wikipediaEverywhere we live these days, governance problems — big, self-destructive, delusional, guaranteed-to-fail governance problems — are the talk of the town.

In Charlottesville, the University of Virginia just survived a ‘near death experience,’ as Rector Helen Dragas described it.

Two weeks ago, UVa’s Board of Visitors (equivalent to a board of directors), led by Rector Dragas, fired the university’s popular and respected president, Teresa Sullivan. Chaos erupted. Faculty, students, alumni, and donors protested daily on the campus lawn. And oh yes, Virginia’s governor threatened to fire the entire Board of Visitors on Wednesday this week if they didn’t fix things at their Tuesday meeting. The Visitors relented and rehired Sullivan.

In Singapore, leaders of a mega-church just landed in boiling oil. Police this week arrested the founder of the 33,000-member City Harvest Church, Kong Hee, and four others. They were charged with fraud. Prosecutors said they secretly used at least US$18 million in church funds to finance the music career of Ho Yeow Sun, pictured above, who is Pastor Kong’s wife and co-founder of the church.

Associate Professor Mak Yuen Teen from the National University of Singapore Business School said: ‘If you look at this organization, you can see that the board was dominated by people who were essentially employees of the church. So the question therefore is where are the checks and balances.’

Back in Charlottesville, at the university Thomas Jefferson founded in 1819, a superstar professor named Bill Wulf resigned shortly after President Sullivan was fired. ‘In my opinion,’ he said, ‘the [Board of Visitors] has perpetrated the worst example of corporate governance I have ever seen.’

He had a point. The final decision to fire Sullivan was carried out by three of sixteen BOV members, acting as a super-executive committee, on a Sunday morning and without any formal vote. The other two super-executive committee members were absent — one was reportedly recovering in New England from hip surgery, and the other was in Hawaii. Both, apparently, were supporters of President Sullivan.

The three Visitors who canned Sullivan, who had served only two years, were all from the business world. They said Sullivan wasn’t adapting fast enough to changes in higher education, like cutting money-losing departments (classical studies and German) and promoting cash-generating online programs. Sullivan had said she was looking at all options ‘incrementally,’ because top-down, corporate-style management doesn’t work at great research universities. (It sure didn’t work for UVa’s Board of Visitors.)

Anyway, President Sullivan is back now and calm is returning to Charlottesville. No word from Singapore on the whereabouts of Pastor Sun, as she called herself, the wannabe rock star. She had been spotted in Hollywood, in a mansion she rented for US$20,000 a month, just down the street from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Our point? Poor governance practices produce terrible decisions by boards of directors, visitors, overseers, church fathers, or whatever they’re called. Secret meetings, super-executive sessions with no recorded votes, evasive Sunday morning maneuvers, domination by insiders, rock-star ambitions — they all point to impending institutional disasters.

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