Failure to Rescue

September 16, 2012

Today’s Sunday New York Times Magazine has an article on the firing and rehiring of Teresa Sullivan as President of the University of Virginia last June (Andrew Rice, “How Not to Fire a President,” called “Anatomy of a Campus Coup” online).

I found it an unremarkable, unrevealing read that did little to deepen my understanding of what happened there.  A relatively small board of trustees dominated by politically appointed, wealthy, private sector figures with little experience in higher education, talked themselves into believing that UVA was in crisis and needed a different kind of leader.  Led by their chair, they asked for the President’s resignation and then backed down when the university community closed ranks behind the fired president.

But the NYT article did point me towards something better, a commencement address at Williams College by Atul Gawande, a surgeon who writes for The New Yorker.  Entitled “Failure and Rescue,” Gawande asks whether it is important that we take risks.  Yes it is, Gawande told the graduates; risk-taking is essential.  “More than anything, this is what distinguished the great from the mediocre. They didn’t fail less. They rescued more.”  He added, “This may in fact be the real story of human and societal improvement. We talk a lot about ‘risk management’—a nice hygienic phrase. But in the end, risk is necessary. Things can and will go wrong. Yet some have a better capacity to prepare for the possibility, to limit the damage, and to sometimes even retrieve success from failure.”

Things can and will go wrong.  It is what we do next, how we deal with the failure, that matters most.

At UVA, the most charitable view is that the board took a risk and failed. Now the question is whether President Sullivan and her board can rescue the situation: can they retrieve success from failure?

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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