The University of Virginia is now effectively led by a man some on campus have termed a “puppet,” and whose interim presidency many faculty refuse to recognize. It may come as no surprise that Carl Zeithaml turned the job down twice before reluctantly agreeing to take it.
Zeithaml, one of 11 academic deans at Virginia’s state flagship, was installed by the Board of Visitors as interim leader after 2 a.m. on Tuesday - - the timing alone says something about the turbulent circumstances behind the choice.
He was the pick of Rector Helen E. Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington, who has since resigned, to replace Teresa Sullivan, ousted by the board a week earlier.
Asked whether he approved of the board’s decision on Sullivan, Zeithaml said, “I think everybody recognizes that the process was deeply flawed, and I don’t condone it.” Pressed further, he added, “I don’t support the board’s decision to remove her.”
In defending the abrupt and utterly unanticipated move to oust Sullivan, Dragas told academic leaders, “The appropriate day of judgment on this decision will come at the time that a new president has been installed and given an opportunity to prove himself or herself as the leader the institution needs and deserves.”
It is now clear she may have been thinking of Zeithaml. He acknowledged, in a news conference Wednesday, that he had spoken to Dragas and Kington about taking the permanent presidency of U-Va. on June 12, in an e-mail exchange and brief phone call. He said Dragas asked his input on how to handle the presidential transition. He said Kington asked if Zeithaml would consider becoming the permanent university president.
“I was, very honestly, unequivocal in saying no,” Zeithaml said at the news conference. He said he was concerned, among other things, about being wrongly viewed as a conspirator in Sullivan’s removal.
Zeithaml said he met with the board leaders two days later, on June 14, and again declined the presidency. Only then, he said, did the topic of an interim presidency arise, and Zeithaml reluctantly agreed.
He had no further conversations with the board leaders, he said, until early Tuesday, when Dragas contacted him in London and asked if he would take the job.
Zeithaml leads the McIntire School of Commerce at U-Va. A 15-year administrator, he has led the undergraduate business school to the top of the annual academic rankings, where it vies with Notre Dame and Penn.
Undergraduate business schools don’t compete in the same airspace as graduate business schools (U-Va.’s Darden School competes with Harvard and its ilk), but McIntire is regarded nonetheless as one of U-Va.’s crown jewels. Zeithaml has a strong support base of donors and alumni, and he is generally thought to be presidential material.
Indeed, some in the university community speculated that the permanent presidency might be Zeithaml’s to lose. U-Va. and its governing board have taken such a public-relations hit in recent days that university supporters wonder whether a presidential search will draw strong candidates.
But Zeithaml immediately made clear he was not seeking the permanent post.
“I have absolutely no intention of being a candidate for the permanent job,” he said.
Nonetheless, many on the historic Grounds have derided Zeithaml for accepting the interim presidency, reasoning that the action marks him as a collaborator in an unjust cause.
In a note to McIntire alumni Wednesday, Zeithaml made a case that he could help keep the public flagship on course.
“I accepted this daunting responsibility because, at this time of turmoil and uncertainty, we need all members of the UVA community to step forward and ensure that the mission of our great University is fulfilled,” he wrote. “When it became clear to me that the decision which created this situation would not be reversed, I agreed to join with many colleagues across the University who recognize that we need to reestablish a clear and positive momentum.”
Many at U-Va. do not agree that Sullivan’s ouster cannot be reversed. Those who wish to reinstate Sullivan view Zeithaml’s elevation to leadership as a betrayal of their quest.
“Some people disagree with my decision to serve in this role, and I understand their reasons,” Zeithaml wrote. “After profound deliberation, however, I felt that I had no choice. I am sorry if you disagree with my decision, but please join me in my efforts to move the University forward.”
Rather than affirm the Board of Visitors, Zeithaml made clear Wednesday he disapproved of their actions and strongly approved of Sullivan’s leadership. For him to have said otherwise would have put him at odds with most of the U-Va. community, because the board has virtually no public support among faculty and staff. Some observers on the Grounds have noted that the university is not really “divided” over Sullivan’s removal.
“I want to build on the tremendous work that President Sullivan has done over the past two years,” he said, appraising her tenure in more flattering terms than Dragas used in announcing her exit. “I want to, in a sense, pick up where she will leave off on August 15.”
Asked whether he thought Dragas should resign, Zeithaml said, “I think whether the rector resigns or not is up to the rector. I am not in her shoes, and I am happy I am not in her shoes.”
Zeithaml said he was “very aware that there is a breakdown in trust between many members of the community and the Board of Visitors. I realize many of you don’t trust me,” he added, and it was unclear whether he referred to the audience of reporters and university officials or the broader public. “It is, I guess, devastating to me that we have lost that trust over the last 10 days. . . We’re going to rebuild that trust.”
Zeithaml said he agreed to become interim president on condition that John Simon, the provost and chief academic officer of U-Va., remain in his job. Simon had hinted, in a faculty meeting over the weekend, that he might resign if Sullivan were not reinstated. But Zeithaml said he told Simon “I wouldn’t do this unless he stuck around.”
Simon, for his part, said “I have committed to work with Carl to move the university forward while in this role.” Simon decided to stay partly to serve as an advocate for the faculty, whose support for him has not wavered.
Zeithaml said he expected to occupy the interim job for a year. He said he would be an “activist, make-decisions, move-things-forward” type of president, and would set out to “move as smartly and aggressively as we can. The online issue, we really can’t wait on that.”
He said one priority would be online instruction, an endeavor cited repeatedly by Dragas as an area in which she found Sullivan lacking. “Obviously, some of our competitors have made major moves in that area,” he said.
Zeithaml’s elevated role has spawned questions about his administrative abilities.
Susan “Syd” Dorsey, a former U-Va. board member who chaired a Special Committee on Diversity, faulted Zeithaml in a written statement for his “track record on Diversity and his willingness to have discussions related to it.”
Zeithaml said he had worked to make his business school “as diverse an environment as possible,” although he acknowledged African-American students are under-represented.
Appraising the university’s overall health, Zeithaml said, “We’ve had a problem, OK? We’ve had a major problem. But at the end of the day, this is still a university with great students, with great faculty, with great programs.”