Justin Peligri: Why Doug Guthrie’s firing wasn’t surprising

The popular joke among students over the past few weeks goes something like this: “Doug Guthrie was the dean of the business school, responsible for teaching students how to manage money and become successful entrepreneurs. And he doesn’t even know how to balance a budget?”

The scariest part is that the joke retains a strong connection to the truth.

Guthrie was fired from his posts as dean of the GW School of Business and vice president for China operations a few weeks ago for what Provost Steven Lerman called a “profound disagreement” over how to budget for the business school. On the heels of that came the news that he spent an extra $13 million on business school operations – or roughly the amount spent on the recent renovations to Gelman Library.

Guthrie’s firing may have come as a shock to the GW community, but across higher education, top leaders being thrown out before their contracts expire is an unfortunate trend.

To that end, former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg – always provocative and unapologetic – provides a series of case studies of university presidents who fail at their jobs in his new book published this summer, “Presidents Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It.”

Trachtenberg, along with co-writers Gerald B. Kauvar and E. Grady Bogue, were smart to write the book when they did: “During 2009 and 2010, fifty college, university, and system presidents either resigned, retired prematurely, or were fired,” the dust jacket reads.

How serendipitous, and oddly unintentional, that a few short weeks after a former GW president releases a book on various upheavals in leadership, the University experiences some administrative turmoil of its own.

In “Presidents Derailed,” Trachtenberg enumerates six “derailment themes,” or headings under which nearly all leadership issues fall. He lists “poor interpersonal skills” and “inability to lead key constituencies” as numbers two and three.

These are exactly some of the problems that Guthrie faced. Guthrie’s firing seemed abrupt. But if we all had been aware of the warning signs, none of us would have been really surprised.

Like college presidents, deans are, by nature, torn between their responsibilities to students, faculty and administrators. And while many students credit Guthrie for his clear vision for the business school – one with a laser-sharp focus on ethics and social responsibility – it’s clear that he couldn’t build a consensus with the people who mattered.

He wanted to catapult the business school higher in the rankings – but he couldn’t convince the people who mattered to jump on board. He wanted about $35.5 million of investments from GW over five years, but only got $10 million over three years. He wanted to buy out sub-par faculty and take stronger control of the tenure process, but received immense opposition.

Then came the rumors and bizarre accusations.

Guthrie endured about 16 months of anonymous complaints that he was and having sex with colleagues and siphoning profits from the China programs he helped run, according to Monday’s Hatchet report.

The Hatchet also reported that a Faculty Senate member and nursing school associate professor Kimberly Acquaviva went to the Board of Trustees this month with claims that Faculty Senate executive committee chair and international business professor Scheharazade Rehman was behind those attacks.

The University has said that its legal office found no evidence to support allegations against Guthrie or Rehman – and until we have conclusive facts and details, we should assume the allegations are false.

But is it a coincidence that the man experiencing backlash – verified or unverified­ – from all the constituents who matter is now no longer in the top spot? I don’t think it is.

“How the president makes decisions, conveys the messages, and responds to reactions can be as important as the decisions themselves,” Trachtenberg writes in his book. And this conundrum applies to Guthrie.

Over his three-year tenure, Guthrie participated in writing the University’s strategic plan and forged a strong partnership between the University and academic programs in China. As far as achieving his goals went, Guthrie was not totally unsuccessful. But he couldn’t sell himself or build a consensus around his efforts, making his demise seem eminent, sooner or later.

What does Trachtenberg, who led GW for 17 years through ascendance and controversy, think about this?

He has made a point not to speak on the record about contentious campus issues that take place under University President Steven Knapp’s tenure. It’s unprofessional, he said, to weigh in: “Elliott never did it to me,” he reasoned, referring to Lloyd Elliott, his predecessor in the role of GW’s president.

But if he could, for a minute, ignore his objective ground rules to weigh in on the business dean drama, I wonder what he would have to say. I think his book spells it out.

The writer, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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