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McDonnell tells U-Va. board to resolve leadership crisis, or he will remove members

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Gov. Robert F. McDonnell told members of the University of Virginia’s governing board Friday that if they do not resolve the leadership crisis at the historic school next week, he will remove all of them.

McDonnell (R), who had repeatedly resisted involving himself in the escalating troubles at the state’s flagship university, sent a stern three-page letter to the Board of Visitors late Friday, nearly two weeks after the ouster of President Teresa Sullivan.

The board has called a special meeting Tuesday to discuss whether to reinstate Sullivan. But McDonnell said if the 15 voting board members cannot make a decision at that meeting, he will ask all of them to resign. If they refuse, he will remove them for cause, a power granted to him by state law but rarely used.

“Let me be absolutely clear: I want final action by the board on Tuesday,’’ he wrote. “If you fail to do so, I will ask for the resignation of the entire board on Wednesday. Regardless of your decision, I expect you to make a clear, detailed and unified statement on the future leadership of the university.”

Rector Helen E. Dragas, head of the board and advocate of replacing Sullivan, said in a statement that she agreed that a final resolution is needed so the “U-Va. family” can move on.

“I appreciate the governor’s leadership in affirming the importance of board governance, and that we alone are appointed to make these decisions on behalf of the university, free of influence from outside political, personal or media pressure,’’ Dragas said. “I look forward to a respectful and dignified meeting on Tuesday, and to an important discussion of the implications of any decision we make on the ability of future boards to lead the university.”

Earlier Friday, Carl P. Zeithaml, the dean tapped to become interim president, said he would suspend discussions about taking the helm until Sullivan’s situation is resolved. His action reflected the deepening uncertainty over the school’s leadership.

The university founded by Thomas Jefferson has been in an uproar for nearly two weeks. The dispute has come to be seen as a battle over the future of the university, with Dragas seeking faster change in response to financial pressures and Sullivan advocating an incremental approach within academic traditions.

In a lengthy statement, McDonnell faulted the school’s board for “procedural mistakes,” including a lack of transparency and failing to communicate the reasons for their decision to remove Sullivan. He derided “vitriolic comments” directed at Dragas, as well as vandalism on the campus and threats to refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the interim president.

“This should be viewed as a disagreement within the family, not a war,’’ he said. “Mr. Jefferson would have expected a higher level of discourse where people forcefully and civilly express their concerns.”

McDonnell has shown a willingness to remake other boards when he does not like the direction they are taking. He replaced 10 of 11 members of the Virginia Port Authority last year. Last week he removed a member of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board for cause.

But the move is rarely used in higher education. Two decades ago, then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) asked for the resignations of every member of the board at Virginia State University as he tried to unravel the school’s chao­tic finances.

Under the terms of her forced resignation, Sullivan is scheduled to step down Aug. 15. Zeithaml was to take over the next day.

Zeithaml said Friday that he decided to return his focus on his duties as dean of the McIntire School of Commerce after meetings with faculty members and other deans who expressed concerns about him taking the position of interim president while there was still a chance that Sullivan could be reinstated.

He said that he likes to take action when in a leadership position and that it would be “premature” for him to do so when Sullivan was still in office.

“I don’t want to do this job unless I’m bringing my colleagues from across the university along with me or they are bringing me along with them,” Zeithaml said in a news conference here. “If I’m going to do this job, I have got to have legitimacy with all constituent groups.”

Zeithaml said he has received e-mails and phone messages that crossed the line to “abusive language” that attacked “on my character and honor and integrity and everything else.” He said his family also has been bothered by people who objected to him stepping into the interim presidency.

Sullivan supporters on the board think there are enough votes to retain her at Tuesday’s meeting, according to current and former board members briefed on the conversations. Sullivan has informed them she wants to remain president if certain conditions are met, current and former members said. Those conditions include the resignation of Dragas and better communication with the board.

“Some closure on Tuesday would be helpful,’’ said Stephen Nash, chairman of the the school’s Honor Committee.

McDonnell gave the board four tasks for its meeting: eliminate uncertainty about Sullivan’s future; provide clear explanations for decisions; vote without regard to pressure; and act as a unified body when deliberations are complete.

His statement and letter appeared to be welcome on a campus looking for a resolution.

Johnny Vroom, president of the student body, said students are starting to fall into two camps: Those who want Sullivan reinstated, and those who just want to move on with an interim president.

The division is “not a good situation, and it has the ability to turn very bad very quickly,” Vroom said.

In a letter to Dragas, Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta), vice chairman of the House Education Committee, said he is consider legislation to mandate training for board members and changes to the board’s governance structures.

“My office has been inundated with hundreds of emails from constituents to let me know they are furious over your actions. In fact, I cannot think of even one contact in support of the Board’s actions,’’ Landes wrote.

Kumar reported from Richmond.

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