This story has been updated.
Newly released e-mails shed light on the private discussions between the leaders of the University of Virginia's Board of Visitors as they orchestrated the campaign to oust then-president Teresa Sullivan.
In the e-mails, sent in May and June and released late Tuesday, Rector Helen E. Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington periodically reassure one another that removing the president was the right thing to do.
The two trade news articles and op-eds about the coming revolution in online education, and about the urgent need for universities to keep up with emerging technology or risk being left behind.
Some of the language in the exchanges — and in the clippings themselves — would resurface later in their official statements about Sullivan’s departure. In those statements, Dragas attempts to build a case that U-Va. faces a do-or-die moment of adapting to changing times and that Sullivan had not adequately responded to that challenge.
The emails were released in response to a public records request from the Cavalier Daily student newspaper, according to a university spokeswoman.
Here are some excerpts.
May 4: Kington sends Dragas a N.Y. Times Op-Ed piece presaging “a rescrambling” in higher education “around the Web and online learning.” The next day, Dragas says she has “others like this” and has had “interesting discussions” with Provost Simon and COO Strine on the topic.
May 24: Dragas sends Kington a link to a press release about the abrupt resignation of a university president: Jeffrey S. Lehman , who left Cornell University in 2005, after two years, over unspecified differences with the governing board.
May 29: Dragas writes Kington, “Calling for the question…”, setting off a discussion about potential times for a meeting with Sullivan. “Either time would be ok with me,” Kington replies. Dragas and Kington would meet with Sullivan on June 8 to ask for her resignation.
May 31: A public relations executive writes to Dragas to discuss pricing for a “Strategic Communication Project” they have previously discussed. The price is $7,500 for the first 10 hours, and $350 for each additional hour. The work will include “drafting press releases and strategy.” Kington replies, “Seems reasonable.” Dragas says the firm was “Ed’s recommendation,” possibly referring to ex officio board member Ed Miller.
May 31: Dragas sends Kington an editorial from the Wall Street Journal about the “higher education’s online revolution” with the notation, “why we can’t afford to wait.”
June 1: Dragas forwards an article to Kington, board member Heywood Fralin and Chief Operating Officer Michael Strine about Wesleyan University scaling back on a costly financial aid program to save money.
June 2: Dragas sends Kington a draft press release, already in production, to announce Sullivan’s resignation. Kington says it is “excellent, and properly links the action to forward progress.” He suggests removing the term “cutting edge”.
June 2: Dragas tells Kington “TS” has sent a “strange email,” then concludes it is “nothing out of the ordinary.” Kington replies, “OK, will assume Plan A.” He doesn’t say what Plan A is.
June 3: Jeffrey Walker, a prominent U-Va. alumnus, urges Dragas to watch a video that, in his view, signals “that the on-line learning world has now reached the top of the line universities and they need to have strategies or will be left behind.”
Dragas replies, “Your timing is impeccable – the BOV is squarely focused on UVA’s developing such a strategy and keenly aware of the rapidly accelerating pace of change.”
June 4: Dragas sends Kington an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that asserts, “College leaders need to move beyond talking about transformation before it’s too late.” Dragas comments, “good article.”
June 5: Dragas sends Kington a “timely” New Yorker article. It states, “To take a risk, you must have confidence in yourself . . . “[Y]ou will take risks, and you will have failures. But it’s what happens afterward that is defining.”
June 7: The plan is set in motion. Dragas writes to Sullivan, “Terry, Mark and I will both be in Charlottesville tomorrow afternoon and would appreciate a meeting with you. Are you free sometime after 3 pm? Thank you, Helen.” Sullivan replies that she will be free by 5; “Is there anything you would like me to prepare?” The meeting is set for 5.
Dragas writes Kington, “Also a meeting with [Provost] John [Simon] and [COO] Michael [Strine] at 8 pm – earliest John could do it.” She adds, “If all goes according to plan, we’ll have meetings on Saturday morning on campus.” She tells Kington, “Let me know if you want my guest cottage.”
Sullivan’s departure is announced on June 10.
June 10: Jeff Nuechterlein, an Alexandria venture capitalist and U-Va. alumnus, tells Kington he finds Dragas’ comments about Sullivan’s departure “helpful for giving people more color on the situation.” He adds, “I was not impressed w Terry [Sullivan]’s rather pedestrian answer to my question at the Sulgrave Club,” a private Dupont Circle venue, “about online learning and what UVA was doing given what Stanford and others had announced.”
June 10: In a note to Dragas, Kington praises Bob Bruner, dean of the Darden business school (both are alumni), and says Darden “is a near and visible template for much of what we seek.’’ Darden, though part of U-Va., operates as a largely autonomous and financially self-sustaining entity.
June 11: COO Strine forwards a request for comment from a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter. Kington tells Strine and Dragas, “Maybe a modicum of candor is called for”. There is no reply from Dragas.
June 12: Dragas tells Kington, “I’m planning on calling a meeting to discuss an interim.” Board members will name an interim president June 19.
June 12: COO Strine forwards to Kington a note from The Washington Post, asking him for comment on concerns Dragas voiced in her speech to UVA leaders about the university’s financial health.
He writes, “A decision to be made whether to discuss proactively the challenges, economic and otherwise facing higher education generally, public specifically and UVA more specifically. If we decide to do this, I recommend it be a balanced conversation of academic and financial admin leadership (John [Simon, the provost] and me) and perhaps one or both of you at the same time in the same meeting with key points we wish to make well thought out and articulated in advance.” Kington replies that such a conversation “would be productive, as it will be a part of building the case for unavoidable change.” He suggests Strine and Simon handle the request on their own.
Strine suggests, “John and I could draft a statement of the academic and financial context that informs the urgency and action for your review to go under our joint signatures.” He also mentions the idea of “an op-ed,” which, in his view, “makes some sense as it makes a clear statement rather than a construction of separate comments by others.”
Kington concludes, “I really like the idea because John [Simon] and Michael [Strine] are both so substantive.” The statement is issued on June 14.
Strine did not respond to the Post’s reqest. Two days later, in response to a separate request from Dragas, Simon and Strine issue a joint statement.
June 12: Provost Simon writes to Kington about a visit to the university’s Wise campus for unspecified urgent business there. He writes, “I think we don’t need to have chaos at UVaWise as well right now.”
June 12: Kington writes to Dragas and Paul Forch, general counsel to the president, about an article in the campus newspaper that says the nonvoting student board member, Hillary Hurd, supports the move to oust Sullivan. Kington says, “She’s a keeper – wonder if the Governor would like to appoint her as a regular member.”
View the complete documents released by U-Va:
E-mails to Rector Helen Dragas:
E-mails to Vice Rector Mark Kington:
More from The Washington Post: