Now she e-mailed Mark Kington, second-in-command on the board, a draft release that quoted Thomas Jefferson, the school’s founder, and spoke ambiguously about finding a leader to “define and guide the strategic direction of the University while securing the support and resources that will be essential for UVA’s future.”
Thus began behind-the-scenes efforts to put the best public face on a leadership clash that has become a case study in crisis management. Over 18 days of turmoil, Dragas sought help from three public relations firms, one after another, according to e-mails The Washington Post recently obtained through a public records request.
Pieced together with previously released correspondence, the e-mails show Dragas clearly understood the importance of public presentation. But she mistakenly believed the fallout would last a day or two. Most critically, she could never convince people of the need to remove a popular president.
Her words were vague. The process was secretive. Passions were high.
Dragas would issue a second public statement. A third. A fourth. A fifth.
‘Strategic communication consulting’
The idea of a public relations consultant was seemingly modest at first. Dragas got pricing quotes May 31 from the Communication Center, a K Street firm founded by Susan Peterson, a onetime network television correspondent. The first 10 hours of “strategic communication consulting” would cost $7,500.
As “rector,” or leader of the board, Dragas had become increasingly dismayed with Sullivan’s presidency and contacted board members to build support for an ouster.
Finally, Dragas and Kington arranged to meet with Sullivan in her Madison Hall office at 5 p.m on June 8.
The board leaders told her she was a good but not a great president. Sullivan was moving too slowly; she lacked strategic vision — ideas that would be revisited in statements to come. They said they had all but one of 16 board votes. She had a day to agree to resign — or risk being fired at a public meeting.
About an hour later, Peterson e-mailed Dragas: “Hope your meeting went well. . . .
Have a new press release for your approval. And finished with Plan B steps.”
Dragas and Kington announced the resignation June 10 in a release that quoted Sullivan as citing a “philosophical difference” and the board as noting “a rapidly changing and highly pressurized external environment in both health care and in academia” that called for a new leader.
Immediately, people expressed their surprise and confusion and demanded more explanation. Again and again, Dragas was not specific, often citing privacy protections related to personnel issues.