Correction: An earlier version of this post stated incorrectly that outgoing University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan was the first female president of a major public university.
The putsch had all the markings of Stalin-era intrigue. Select members of the Politburo had whispered for weeks that a key and popular leader had to go. She didn’t fit the Inner Circle’s philosophies. She was too prominent and her “vision” was too slow-moving and dogmatically out of step. Finally, without her knowing about the coup, she was summoned by three Politburo members to an unscheduled meeting. The trigger was pulled.
No, it didn’t happen in Moscow, but in Charlottesville, near the beautiful “Lawn” grounds of the University of Virginia, Mr. Thomas Jefferson’s school.
The victim was Teresa Sullivan, one of the most respected academics in the United States. In her two years at U-Va., she had been a breath of fresh air by reaching out to students, faculty and researchers and trying to keep the best traditions of university education alive.
Not according to the school’s Board of Visitors, however. They are 16 politically appointed men and women whose claim to fame is typically business success and large campaign contributions to various governors. Hardly any has a strong academic background. The board’s rector, Helen E. Dragas, who did the dirty work on Sullivan, is a rich real estate developer from Virginia Beach.
Dragas and Mark J. Kington, a former business partner of U.S. senator and former governor Mark Warner, called Sullivan to a meeting Friday and asked for her resignation. Sullivan gave it the next day. Three Board of Visitors members accepted it. The entire board never voted on her ouster. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell insists he didn’t know anything about it until June 6, two days before the call for resigning came.
Sullivan’s fate stunned a university community that had seemed very happy that a woman as intelligent and personable as Sullivan was their leader. It also is not clear exactly why she was fired. Dragas had issued a vague statement that somehow that Sullivan’s ouster resulted from long-standing philosophical differences with the board, something Sullivan acknowledged. Dragas later said the board’s action would be vindicated, with no hint how.
Yet there has been no adequate explanation about why this happened – odd for a locale that is supposed to celebrate transparency. Sullivan took the reins at Virginia’s most prestigious university at a very difficult time. Her predecessor had been John Casteen, a famous fund-raiser and bricks-and-mortar builder but little else.
Because of the weak economy, Sullivan’s initial fundraising efforts fell short. The state was giving schools less money while browbeating them not to raise tuition. She needed to replace a large number of retiring faculty. She tried to expand U-Va.’s research ties with pharmaceutical firms and wanted to emphasize one-on-one teaching relationships with undergraduates. She had to manage two very different organizations: the university itself and its fast-growing health system.
There very well could be a political aspect to her ousting. Conservatives have a vision of online teaching, in which schools cut back on supposed “waste and inefficiency” by making their classes available online, sometimes through for-profit companies they back. Traditionalist professors worry that too much online teaching will ruin instruction. It could be that the board thought Sullivan was moving too slowly on turning U-Va. into DeVry or the University of Phoenix, the for-profit firms that have turned expensive online courses into a cottage industry.
There’s also a war on research of topics considered politically suspect, such as Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli’s hounding of a former U-Va. climatologist for his work on climate change, which the hard right denies is occurring. Sullivan beat back Cuccinelli’s legal probes. Is she now paying the price?
Lastly, there are two dangerous attitudes confronting Sullivan and other college presidents. One, perpetrated by the right-wing, is that the academic community is a cabal of lazy, ineffective and intolerant hippies left over from the 1960s and which must be rooted out. The other is that top public schools have to somehow get ready for the privatization that some consider inevitable. To achieve this, a big public college needs a fundraiser as its leader, not a serious intellectual.
Such is the tragedy at Mr. Jefferson’s University. It may be repeated at other schools.