U.-Va. board ouster of President Teresa Sullivan sparks anger


Teresa Sullivan is sworn in as university president in April 2011. (Sabrina Schaeffer/AP)
June 11, 2012

Outrage escalated on the historic University of Virginia campus Monday over the abrupt ouster of President Teresa Sullivan by a governing board that offered few new details about why it had acted or what exactly had gone awry.

Sullivan was asked to resign after two years in the job, state and university officials said, because the governing board of visitors had grown impatient at what its members perceived as a lack of overarching vision for the future of the state flagship university.

Sullivan learned of the board’s wishes late Friday, after an annual executive retreat during which she and her top staff charted the university’s academic course. Sullivan had no inkling that her job was even in jeopardy, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of events.

“We had all kinds of projects in the works, things we were trying to do to advance the university,” said John Simon, U-Va.’s provost, who attended the off-campus retreat in Albemarle County. He called Sullivan “one of the stars” of higher education.

Sunday’s announcement hurled the Charlottesville campus into disarray. Faculty demanded a fuller explanation of the board’s action. Academic deans dispatched memos to calm the ranks. High-ranking current and former administrators lined up to defend Sullivan’s record.

In a telephone interview Monday, the leader of the board, Rector Helen E. Dragas, said the board would be vindicated in due time.

“It’s really too early to judge this decision,’’ Dragas said. “This decision should be judged after a new president is installed.”

Dragas, a Virginia Beach developer who was named to the board by a Democratic governor in 2008, said the board had voiced “overwhelming support” for replacing Sullivan. Dragas denied the move had any “political considerations.”

On Sunday, a statement from the rector had said that the university needed “a bold leader who can help develop, articulate and implement” a plan for the future. In an implied criticism of Sullivan, she faulted what she termed “incremental, marginal change.” Dragas added Monday that Sullivan was seen as an adequate caretaker of day-to-day operations but that board members were concerned about the adequacy of her long-term plans for all aspects of the university.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who learned about the action from Dragas on Wednesday night, said he was not consulted until after the decision to remove Sullivan had been made.

“My job is to appoint good people to the board of visitors. Their job is to run the university,” McDonnell said in an appearance in Loudoun County. “They know far better than a governor or anybody in the cabinet what needs to be done that’s in the best interests of the university.”

The board kept state lawmakers, the university community and Sullivan in the dark as its members discussed her potential removal in private conversations over a series of months. Sullivan’s term will be the shortest of any U-Va. president.

The board’s decision, made last week, was unanimous, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The board, with 16 voting members, is split equally between those appointed by McDonnell and by his predecessor, Timothy M. Kaine.

After the board’s action, many of Sullivan’s day-to-day duties were divvied up between the provost, Simon, and Chief Operating Officer Michael Strine. Sullivan herself was in Washington on Monday, attending meetings that had already been on her calendar. She will step down Aug. 15.

Terms of separation will be announced in about two weeks, Dragas said, and an interim president named within a month.

Sullivan indicated through a spokesman that she could not discuss her resignation beyond an official statement that lamented a “philosophical difference of opinion” with the board that had hired her. She and her husband, law scholar Douglas Laycock, are tenured professors and free to remain on the U-Va. faculty.

The Faculty Senate chided the board for an “inadequate and unsatisfactory” explanation of Sullivan’s departure. “[W]e are entitled to a full and candid explanation of this sudden and drastic change in University leadership,” the group said in a statement.

“The faculty is in shock. The faculty is hysterical. This is like a death in the family,” said Gweneth West, a drama professor and former chairman of the Faculty Senate. “She was everything we had hoped for and more. And she remains so today.”

Prominent figures in the university community affirmed Sullivan’s record.

“I think history will show that she performed in the time that she was here in an extraordinary manner,” said Leonard Sand­ridge, a former chief operating officer at U-Va. who served under Sullivan’s predecessor, John T. Casteen. Sandridge said Sullivan understood the operations of a major research university “as well as anyone I have ever seen.”

Board members insisted they made the decision with no input from Richmond.

“The board is given the authority to operate,’’ said board member Alan Diamonstein, a former Democratic state delegate. “We really try not to get politics involved in the university.”

“I’ve never been prouder of the utter transparency of a process,’’ another member, businessman R.J. Kirk, said.

Other board members referred questions to Dragas.

Several academic leaders contend Sullivan had a clear vision for the university. Her top priority was to foster “the premier undergraduate experience in the United States,” along with top-ranked professional programs, and the capacity to hire and keep the best scholars for the faculty, Simon said. She envisioned a “radical” shift in undergraduate teaching, he said, to stress in-depth and one-on-one interactions for
upper-level students, technology, and academic innovation for freshmen and sophomores.

Sullivan drew standing-room crowds at speaking engagements and forged deep relationships in Washington and Richmond.

“I thought she was a breath of fresh air,’’ said state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who represents Charlottesville. “I really liked her.”

More from The Washington Post:

Column: U-Va. board, tell us why you pushed out president

Column: What was behind the putsch at U-Va.?

Was U-Va. president Teresa Sullivan paid too much?

Kumar reported from Richmond and de Vise from Charlottesville. Staff writer Ben Pershing and researcher Sue Noftsinger contributed to this report.

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