In case you haven’t heard, the University of Virginia has been riding a roller coaster of secret cabals, emergency board meetings, and an ousted-then-reinstated president. My fellow U.Va. alums and I have spent the past weeks reading and tweeting, linking to blog posts and watching streamed video of rallies, vigils and meetings –all in an effort to uncover the whats and whys of what happened.
In a surprising story that includes breaches of honor and disregard of due process, a small coterie of board members asked for the resignation of a recently installed and very popular president. When the larger community of students, staff, faculty and alums heard that the ouster occurred without a meeting of the full board, they sprang into action to reinstate the president.
Twenty years ago it would have been impossible for the University of Virginia community to come together during summer break as quickly and effectively to fight the forced resignation of a president. But due to the magic of the interwebs and sharing platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the community was able to nimbly organize and assemble, if at times only virtually.
Social media was integral to the success of this effort for a few reasons. But the effort would not have been nearly successful without the elements of story, relationships, emotion and connection.
The Power of Story
This story was at times compared to a chapter in the Harry Potter series. There were twists, turns, rumors, intrigue, secrets, villains, heroes, and underdogs amid themes of justice, greed, fighting the man, tradition, forgiveness, love and connection.
People interested in the future of higher education tuned into the story as it presented the issues facing all public universities: dwindling resources, reduced state support, increased enrollment, and high health care costs. But others also listened because the narrative was captivating. The characters of the drama were identified, roles were cast (literally) and caricatures drawn.
It was a drama of our times, in the vein of Occupy Wall Street. Former George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said, “It’s the French Revolution upside down: the people rising up to demand a return of the orthodox leader, the authentic president in the name of the 99 percent. They, the stakeholders, were not consulted by the 1 percent. It’s about them, the ‘common man.’ Sullivan is the symbol.”
Even though it could be painted as an archetypal story of good versus evil, in the end it was about people muddling through, trying to do the best they could with the information and resources at their disposal.
Not everyone, however, thought the board was utilizing every resource. According to emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the school’s newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, there was a feeling among some board members that the university was not moving fast enough into online education.
Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan pointed out that the board should have consulted the many experts at UVa who have been researching, studying and providing digital platforms and tools for the past twenty years.
But the board did not seek the faculty’s expertise. In fact, much of the board’s intentions were not made public, even to the president.
When the board met to vote on a replacement president, Sullivan read a statement and advised:
“I want to turn to the issue of trust. The community of trust is not merely a term to describe a Code that applies to our students. We equally need a community of trust between faculty and administration and among our leadership teams. Trust does not mean an absence of disagreement. But it requires that disagreements be frankly discussed. No matter how accomplished he or she may be, a president cannot read minds. When you choose a new president, tell him or her what you are thinking.”
The Power of Love
While the board was working to figure out the next head of the university, students, faculty and alumni were gathering behind the scenes to orchestrate The Rally for Honor, held on June 24 on the Lawn. This event was characterized not by angry and disenchanted voices, but by people united in their love for the school and impassioned by their hope that the Board of Visitors would ultimately do the right thing.
“If the Board were to reinstate Terry Sullivan, most of us will come away with a new appreciation for the Board,” Ken Elzinga, Professor of Economics, said. “Forgiveness is what the University needs, not years of ill will.”
Spanish professor Ricardo Padron, commented that without the Board of Visitors’ misstep, “We would not have known this,” pointing to the crowd on the Lawn. “And that we know we all care more for this place than we thought we could.”
It wasn’t just love for the school on display, but love for its hands-on administrator. President Sullivan, an incrementalist who is known for her listening skills, used her 22-month tenure to connect with the community and garner much needed buy-in for inevitable change. Dorrie Fontaine, Dean of the Nursing School, described Sullivan as having style, grace and courage.
What makes a story sticky or spreadable?
I have had more than a few clients who’ve asked, “How do I make this video go viral?” or “How do I get more people to comment on a blog post?”
The lessons from these past two weeks at UVa indicate:
- If you want a story or message to spread, it should be simple and memorable; extra points if there is an element of surprise. In this case, the de facto firing of a popular president coupled with the concrete, simple details of a few people staging a behind the scenes coup made the story both simple and unexpected.
- Meaningful stories get more mileage. Causes always perform better than product promotions because people care more about Parkinson’s Disease, drunk driving and local food than toothpaste flavors, car design or computer chips. During the tumultuous weeks at UVa, the school lost donations, at least one professor and untold amounts of goodwill. People got involved because they knew their school was being hurt and they wanted to help change the trajectory/course of events.
- The story needs to appeal to emotions. In this case, the story appealed to multiple emotions: sense of justice, love for an institution, commitment to people who have helped (teachers), and a shared sense of purpose toward a common goal.
So far, the story has a happy ending – the board voted unanimously to reinstate President Sullivan and her reinstatement has inspired a flood of donations.
And, on a personal note, I have never been more proud to be a part of The University of Virginia.
I am in awe of the collective heart of all who worked to set things right.