Interim U-Va. leader Carl Zeithaml seeks to quell uproar over Sullivan’s ouster

June 20, 2012

Several members of the University of Virginia’s governing board spent Wednesday quietly counting votes and plotting a move to reinstate Teresa Sullivan after the popular outgoing president informed them that she wants to remain if Rector Helen E. Dragas resigns, according to current and former board members briefed on the conversations.

Sullivan holds such broad support among professors that the Faculty Senate chairman held out hope that she could be reinstated following the resignation of one of her critics on the governing board. She has also indicated to board members that she would seek other changes were she to return, including communications with them.

“It’s not over,” law professor George M. Cohen, who leads the Faculty Senate, said in an interview. “Have you counted the votes?”

Sullivan’s supporters on the board think they are close to the eight votes needed to reinstate her. They note that only eight votes are needed since Mark J. Kington, the vice rector who teamed with Dragas to orchestrate Sullivan’s ouster, resigned Tuesday, leaving just 15 members on the board.

Sullivan’s supporters have until 5 p.m. Thursday to call a meeting for June 27, at which a reinstatement vote would be taken. Only three board members are required to request such a session. But they will not do so unless they believe they have eight votes.

As efforts to reinstate Sullivan continued, U-Va.’s incoming interim leader, commerce school dean Carl P. Zeithaml, ruled out any interest in becoming the university’s next president. He was appointed interim president by the board Tuesday in hopes that he could help calm the university and preside with the trust of the faculty until a new president is hired.

Virginia’s flagship university has been embroiled in turmoil for 11 days, since the board announced June 10 that Sullivan would leave. At a 5 p.m. gathering on the Lawn, faculty leaders told a crowd of several hundred they would meet with the interim president in the morning.

“Ask him to resign!” someone yelled from the crowd.

The dispute has come to be seen as a larger battle over the direction of the school Thomas Jefferson founded.

Sullivan calls herself an “incrementalist” who seeks change from within the university’s traditions; board critics say the school needs a bolder vision that will take into account financial pressures in academia and the evolving role of online education, among other factors.

Zeithaml, scheduled to take over as interim president Aug. 16, said at a news conference that he initially turned down the job and worried that he would be perceived as part of a “conspiracy” to remove Sullivan. “I don’t support the board’s decision to remove her,” he said.

He took note of the controversy over the removal of Sullivan in a letter to McIntire School of Commerce alumni.

“Some people disagree with my decision to serve in this role, and I understand their reasons,” Zeithaml, the McIntire dean, said in the letter. “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.”

At one point during a closed board meeting that stretched from Monday into Tuesday, allies of Sullivan seemed to have the support of eight members on the board, according to several people briefed on the session who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. Because Kington, the vice rector, had not yet resigned his seat on the 16-member board, nine votes would have been necessary to reinstate Sullivan.

Instead of voting on Sullivan’s reinstatement, the board voted 12 to 1 to appoint Zeithaml as interim president until a permanent successor can be found. The dissenter was W. Heywood Fralin. Board members Robert D. Hardie and A. Macdonald Caputo abstained, and Glynn D. Key left before the vote.

Whether the board would revisit its decision following Kington’s resignation was uncertain. With each passing day, the leadership transition is gaining momentum.

Dragas has not responded to repeated e-mails and telephone calls seeking comment.

Some university supporters fear the coming search for a permanent successor to Sullivan will yield few prospects.

“I think finding a qualified candidate who will even consider this job will be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, at this point,” said Austin Ligon, a retired automobile executive and former board member. Of Sullivan’s removal, Ligon said, “I think this will become the textbook case for bad university governance.”

Kumar reported from Richmond.

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