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.