U-Va. board to reconsider President Sullivan’s employment
By Anita Kumar and Daniel de Vise,
RICHMOND — The University of Virginia governing board will meet next week to discuss whether to reinstate President Teresa Sullivan, whose abrupt ouster this month caused an uproar on the historic campus.
Sullivan supporters on the board of visitors called for a special meeting after they secured what they think are enough votes to retain her, according to current and former board members briefed on the conversations.
The board will meet at 3 p.m. Tuesday to discuss “possible changes in the terms of employment of the president,” according to a notice released Thursday afternoon.
The move comes after nearly two weeks of protests by many faculty, students, alumni and donors over the removal of Sullivan. Under the terms of the forced resignation, she is scheduled to step down Aug. 15.
On Thursday, Rector Helen E. Dragas, leader of the board, issued a statement defending the decision to replace the president. She said a leadership transition was necessary to ensure that the university addresses major challenges, warning that without a new strategic plan, U-Va. “will continue to drift in yesterday.”
But former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) said the board should keep Sullivan.
During his term, Kaine appointed eight of the 15 voting members of the board, including Dragas.
“I think they should offer to reinstate President Sullivan,” said Kaine, now a candidate for U.S. Senate. “I hope that she would accept that.”
Sullivan has informed board members through an intermediary that she wants to remain president if certain conditions are met, said current and former members. Those conditions include the resignation of Dragas and better communication with the board.
Also Thursday, Sullivan issued a statement urging the campus to remain civil. She lamented what she called “abusive language” aimed at the incoming interim president, Carl P. Zeithaml, as well as at board members.
“I know that emotions are running high on Grounds, but there is no excuse for abusing anyone with whom you disagree,” Sullivan said in a statement.
Sullivan and her attorney, Raymond Cotton, declined to comment on her possible reinstatement.
Sullivan’s supporters are eager to have a vote before the end of June, when the makeup of the board will change. At least three members will be new. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has the option of reappointing two more, including Dragas.
Several board members, along with a handful of other insiders, have spent the past few days negotiating a possible Sullivan reinstatement. They said they would call a meeting only if they had the necessary votes.
Sullivan’s supporters appear to need eight votes to reinstate her because Mark J. Kington, the vice rector who teamed with Dragas to orchestrate Sullivan’s ouster, resigned Tuesday, leaving 15 voting members.
At one point during a closed board meeting that stretched from Monday into Tuesday, allies of Sullivan’s seemed to have had the support of eight members on the board, according to several people briefed on the session who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. But because Kington had not yet resigned his seat, nine votes would have been necessary at that time 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.
Dragas has faced relentless criticism for a perceived failure to articulate clear and specific reasons for seeking Sullivan’s resignation without support or input from the university community.
Her statement Thursday responded with a 10-point list of “difficult challenges” that, in her view, demand immediate action, rather than Sullivan’s “incremental” approach.
Among them, she said, were diminishing funding, the changing role of technology, rapid changes in health care, faculty workload and diminished student experience, the need for donations in sync with the university’s priorities and the need for more rigorous evaluation of the curriculum.
Dragas’s overarching critique, mentioned in most of the 10 points, is that Sullivan lacked an “articulated, long-range plan” to solve the university’s most vexing problems.
But Sullivan had delivered a 12-page strategic plan to the board. In it, she wrote that she had been “explicitly instructed not to do a strategic plan” because faculty were fatigued by a lack of follow-through from previous strategic plans, but that she was preparing one anyway.
Dragas said she and her supporters on the board were concerned that Sullivan lacked a long-range plan to find new revenue to supplant lost state subsidies.
The university is, however, one of the nation’s most successful public institutions in fundraising, with a current campaign approaching $3 billion, and its $5 billion endowment has recently outperformed those at Harvard and Yale.
Dragas said U-Va.’s student-faculty ratio is “deteriorating.” Institutional data show that ratio is the same as a decade ago, 16 to 1.
Dragas also indicated that U-Va.’s faculty compensation is not rising as fast as compensation at comparable schools. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this year that full-professor pay at U-Va. has risen $40,400 since 2000, to $141,600 a year. By comparison, the Chronicle reported, the average salary for full professors at doctoral institutions has risen $36,400 over the past decade.
On Thursday, the American Association of University Professors issued a statement expressing “deep concern” over the ouster of Sullivan. And the deans of 10 colleges at U-Va. joined a growing chorus on campus calling for the board to reconsider its decision.
“It is clear after nearly two weeks of outrage, indignation, upset, threats of withdrawal of support and loyalty, that the people of the University of Virginia, and their ideas, which together comprise the University much more than buildings or landscapes, regard the decision as a mistake made in the absence of open discourse and courtesy,” they wrote.
McDonnell, who returned late Wednesday from a trade mission to Europe, remained quiet about the issue, though his office has been inundated with 2,000 e-mails and nearly 400 calls. A spokesman said his office was carefully considering the opinions.
Staff writers Jenna Johnson, Susan Svrluga and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report. Johnson reported from Charlottesville.