An important lesson in the UVa firing of President Sullivan

John Dickenson of CBS NEWS has an interesting observation on what can be learned from the UVa debacle. I think stated in general terms, the lesson may be obvious, but applying it in ordinary academic life may be less easy. What I like about it is that it encourages taking risks, but points out that the most important part may be what happens afterward.

The advice comes in fact from Atul Gawande whose commencement speech is one Rector Dragas was sending around.

Dickenson says:

What we know for sure is that Dragas and Kington did not get the central message of Gawande’s address to the graduating class at Williams College. Gawande concluded by saying:

So you will take risks, and you will have failures. But it’s what happens afterward that is defining. A failure often does not have to be a failure at all. However, you have to be ready for it–will you admit when things go wrong? Will you take steps to set them right?–because the difference between triumph and defeat, you’ll find, isn’t about willingness to take risks. It’s about mastery of rescue.

If there’s one thing that everyone can agree on, it’s that Dragas, Kington, and their anti-Sullivan cabal blew the rescue. They stood up in the lifeboat, they threw gas on the fire, they put the oxygen mask on the child first, and forgot themselves…

At an institution founded on intellectual inquiry, it is a bad idea to respond to questions with stonewalling. But it would be a mistake to think the board just mishandled the aftermath or that a different statement confected by a team of PR wizards would have helped. The calamity in the post-risk period of Sullivan’s firing was baked into the initial risk-taking act. This is where the incomplete analogy in Gawande’s speech is important. You must have a plan if your risk goes awry, but you also can’t do things in the risk-taking that doom your clean-up effort. So when you’re climbing a tricky pass on El Capitanwithout a rope, don’t wear an anvil. When you launch a start-up, don’t sign on with venture capital firms too fast or the money you get will cause you to grow too quickly, amplifying the early failures you’ll inevitably have and putting you on the hook with merciless investors. Don’t think because you’ve been successful making one kind of risky decision that you will be successful making others…

Risk takers are actually highly cautious. They squeeze every ounce of chance out of their actions because they know what they’re doing may fail. Dragas and her accomplices did the opposite [through their secret plotting].