For University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, the last two weeks have been a virtual retread of her first two weeks on the job: a blur of meetings with faculty, staff, board members, important alumni and various other stakeholders in the university community, to take “soundings” and rebuild a fractured institutional consensus.
Sullivan is working to repair the damage wrought by an 18-day leadership crisis at U-Va., which began with a private meeting on June 8 that led to her forced resignation and ended with her reinstatement June 26, with a remarkable sequence of mass protests, high-level lobbying and palace intrigue sandwiched between.
She described what she has been doing in a letter to faculty and staff, dispatched yesterday evening:
Since the day I was reinstated, I have been taking soundings from many in the University community. The Governor has appointed new members of the Board of Visitors, and I have taken the opportunity to speak with them, with the Rector, and with incumbent Board members. I have also spoken with faculty leaders, staff and administrators, and with many alumni, parents, and community members. Although many of our students are not here for the summer, a number of them have also contacted me. It is fair to say that I am far behind in answering my mail.
Sullivan borrowed a phrase from the Marine Corps to portray the abortive move to oust her as “opportunity disguised as a disaster.”
That is the message coming out of Charlottesville now — that the university is improbably better off for its tumultuous experience.
Helen Dragas, the board leader who orchestrated the attempt to oust Sullivan, acknowledged having brought a “near-death experience” to her alma mater. The upheaval cost the university donors, faculty and prestige. One of Sullivan’s first errands following her reinstatement was a trip to Georgia to reassure the university’s academic accreditors, whose blessing is essential for U-Va. to remain in business.
Now that the crisis is over, nearly all of the major players — including Sullivan, Dragas and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) — have agreed on the message that the painful events of June have left the university more unified in spirit and purpose.
“Former Rector and Board member Heywood Fralin observed that the University community is more united than at any time he can remember,” Sullivan wrote. “More than I could have ever imagined, our difficulties here have galvanized our stakeholders, both internal and external, in extraordinary ways. We are better positioned than ever before to address the difficult issues facing higher education. We are not different from the rest of higher education in having these issues; we are different in that we have displayed the unity to begin addressing them.”
The leadership challenge indeed united thousands of faculty, staff and students behind Sullivan — and against Dragas, whose continued presence on the Grounds is, to many, divisive.
In reappointing Dragas at the end of last month, McDonnell stated: “This is not a time for recrimination. It’s a time for reconciliation.” He conceded that the board had erred in removing Sullivan but lamented that Dragas had emerged as the “sole target of recent criticism.”
With Sullivan back, faculty leaders have dropped their demand that Dragas resign, their chief grievance having been addressed at the moment the rector voted for reinstatement.
But tensions remain, and Sullivan told the university community Wednesday of the need to “pursue reconciliation with those with whom we differed, to repair relationships that have frayed, and always to let civility replace hostility. To the extent that I am able, I will lead this effort by example.”