U-Va. donors threaten to withhold funds over ouster of president

June 17, 2012

A top donor to the University of Virginia said she plans to withhold future contributions unless members of the school’s governing board who are responsible for the ouster of President Teresa Sullivan are removed.

Another donor said she is worried about her family’s investment — more than $170 million over the years — at the historic campus. More than a dozen smaller donors have withdrawn pledges totaling thousands of dollars, and university officials are bracing for more.

“It hurts me because I had two or three things I wanted to get done,” Hunter Smith of Charlottesville said Sunday in an interview. “I won’t condone what happened. It’s disgraceful.”

Smith and her late husband, Carl W. Smith, contributed more than $60 million to the Charlottesville school founded by Thomas Jefferson and U-Va.’s College at Wise in southwest Virginia. Now she says she will not donate until changes to the governing board are made.

Sullivan’s brief tenure in effect ended a week ago after the leader of U-Va.’s Board of Visitors, Helen E. Dragas, told the enormously popular president that she had enough votes to remove her. The Board of Visitors never met or took a vote on Sullivan’s ouster. Instead, Dragas spoke to board members individually over a series of months.


Teresa Sullivan’s brief tenure as U-Va. president abruptly ended a week ago. (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG)

Experts said that does not violate state law. But Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said it is highly unusual for a school to make a decision to remove its president behind closed doors and without a formal meeting.

At a boisterous meeting Sunday, the university’s chief academic officer, Provost John Simon, uttered his first critical remarks, telling 800 faculty members and others that the board’s future actions will determine whether he wants to stay and help lead the university. His words met with thunderous applause, hinting at a potential faculty exodus ahead.

“I now find myself at a defining moment, confronting and questioning whether honor, integrity and trust are truly the foundational pillars of life at the University of Virginia,” he said, remarks that struck to the heart of the university’s fabled honor code.

His remarks echo a stinging statement Sunday by the school’s Honor Committee, which called the board’s failure to explain its actions “inconsistent with the value of trust that runs through the very fabric of our university.”

In the past week, current and former administrators, faculty and students have rallied behind Sullivan in meetings, through resolutions and on the Internet. The vast majority want her reinstated.

“There may be good reason to replace President Sullivan — I don’t know — but it was handled in the worst possible way that has caused damage to the university,” said Jane Batten of Virginia Beach. It is her family that has given U-Va. $170­ million, making it arguably the largest donor in the school’s history. The Battens gave the university $100 million in 2007.

Hunter Smith and former president John Casteen, who spent two decades as U-Va.’s leader, were expected to contact Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to urge him to get involved, several university officials said. But McDonnell has resisted, saying he had no intention of “meddling” in the board’s business, even at one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities.

“When governors start meddling . . . particularly on personnel decisions, it really undermines the authority of these boards,” he said in a conference call with reporters last week.

When McDonnell returns Wednesday from a nine-day trade mission to Europe, he will find a firestorm that has cast Virginia in an unflattering national spotlight.

U-Va.’s board is split equally between members appointed by McDonnell and former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D), who is a candidate for U.S. Senate.

McDonnell will appoint at least two board members at the end of this month because of expiring terms. He has the option of re­appointing two more, including Dragas.

Bill Leighty, former chief of staff to two Virginia governors, said a governor may not have the legal standing to remove a member whose term has not ended, but he can ask for a resignation. “Whether or not the law can require them to resign, if a governor asks, it’s the Virginia way to resign,” he said.

Dragas, a Virginia Beach developer with two degrees from U-Va., and Vice Rector Mark Kington, president of an Alexandria management company who was in business with Sen. Mark R. Warner (D), are said to have orchestrated the ouster. At least three of the 16 board members were not involved.

Dragas and Sullivan have not returned repeated requests for comments.

Smith said she would like to see Dragas, Kington and other board members removed before she donates any more money. Beneficiaries of her family’s donations include Scott Stadium, the Cavalier Marching Band and the schools of architecture, law, medicine and business. Her name adorns the band building, and her husband’s is on the aquatic and fitness center.

Jane Batten’s late husband, Frank, was a publishing magnate and founder of the Weather Channel. The Batten family has donated $60 million to the Darden School of Business to create an institute to promote entrepreneurial leadership in business and $100 million to establish a school of leadership and public policy.

Robert Sweeney, U-Va.’s senior vice president of development, said about 15 other donors have rescinded pledges. The largest was $5,000, he said.

Sullivan drew criticism for her fundraising efforts. At the end of last year, the university fell $400 million short of a $3 billion fundraising target set in 2004.

The school saw a decrease during the depths of the economic downturn, from September 2008 to November 2010, but giving has rebounded. Sweeney said pledges — now averaging nearly $24 million a month — are in line with those made during Casteen’s tenure. December saw the third-largest amount of pledges — $87 million — in a single month in the school’s history.

At the Sunday meeting, Simon set a defiant tone. He said he wanted to do the right thing and set a good example for his children on Father’s Day by taking a stand against the ouster of Sullivan. He had praised Sullivan previously but stopped well short of criticizing the board that removed her.

“The board actions over the next few days will inform me as to whether the University of Virginia remains the type of institution I’m willing to dedicate my efforts to help lead,” he said.

The board will meet with faculty Monday morning and then hold a special meeting to name an interim president, weeks ahead of the original schedule, in an effort to calm the campus.

Sullivan, who has made no public comment since her ouster, has asked to address the board.

Researcher Alice R. Crites contributed to this report. De Vise reported from Charlottesville.

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