At U-Va., tensions between Sullivan and Dragas hit a new boiling point

March 1, 2013

The University of Virginia’s president and governing board leader have, in public, maintained an air of united collegiality for the past eight months, hoping to move beyond the summer’s leadership crisis.

Out of sight, tension has continued to build between U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan and U-Va. Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas as they struggle for control of the university’s agenda and priorities, according to several people close to the situation.

In recent weeks, the conflict hit a boiling point. Days after Virginia lawmakers confirmed Dragas’s reappointment to the board in January, the rector sent the president a lengthy and detailed list of goals to meet this school year. Sullivan, apparently incensed, responded by sending the entire board an e-mail arguing that the 65 goals constitute, among other things, “micromanagement.”

“The sheer number of goals is close to impossible to achieve, especially with only five months left in the academic year,” Sullivan wrote in a Feb. 6 e-mail obtained by The Washington Post. “I am not averse to stretch goals, but I also do not care to be set up to fail.”

The university is still recovering from the events of the summer, when Dragas and another board leader asked Sullivan to resign in early June without publicly providing reasons. Faculty revolted, formally demanding Sullivan’s return and the resignation of responsible board members. They were soon joined by thousands of alumni, students, donors and others. After 18 days of upheaval, the board reinstated Sullivan.

Email correspondence between Teresa Sullivan, Helen Dragas and other University of Virginia leaders.

The crisis brought national attention to the school, which Thomas Jefferson founded, as well as challenges facing public universities across the country. It also gave the leaders reasons to dislike and distrust each other.

Their management styles are starkly different, as are their backgrounds: Sullivan has worked in academia for nearly 40 years, as a sociologist focusing on labor issues and as an administrator at the universities of Texas and Michigan. Dragas, who earned two degrees from U-Va. in the 1980s, runs her family’s Virginia Beach-based development and building company.

Both have said they want U-Va. to prosper academically and financially, but the two leaders disagree over how best to make that happen.

‘Healthy, robust discussions’

Sullivan and Dragas were provided copies of e-mails obtained by The Post, and neither disputed their authenticity. The university declined to release drafts of the president’s goals and Dragas’s additions, saying that they are “confidential personnel records” exempt from the state’s open-
records law.

Sullivan declined to comment. Dragas did not dispute in an interview Thursday that there is tension between her and the president, and she said that it is important for boards and presidents to have “healthy, robust discussions.” Dragas said that asking questions about how taxpayer and student dollars are spent is not always popular.

“U-Va. is a public institution. It’s not an academic playground,” Dragas said, “and we have to make some difficult decisions.”

Since June, the board has had some membership turnover, and it has taken steps to change policies or practices that might have contributed to the crisis. Last summer, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) reappointed Dragas to the board, an action confirmed by a majority of Virginia lawmakers in late January.

In November, the board gave Sullivan a one-year extension on her contract. That contract came with a list of goals that included leading a strategic planning process, recruiting and retaining top faculty, accelerating the implementation of technology, implementing a new budget model and reorganizing the communications office. Sullivan also agreed to quarterly evaluations.

The U-Va. faculty continues to broadly support Sullivan, but a few faculty members have said they are perplexed that she has not launched major initiatives or quickly implemented some of the ideas discussed in the summer. These faculty, who spoke mostly anonymously, did not know whether that was the fault of Sullivan or the board.

“We keep waiting,” said David Leblang, chairman of the U-Va. politics department, in the days before the board last month put its support behind increasing employee compensation after months of Sullivan’s asking it to do so. “We know the president has good ideas about moving the university forward. . . . We see that every day, but we don’t see the board get behind those ideas.”

In November, Sullivan created a list of goals for herself for this academic year and sent it to the three board members on the evaluation committee, which includes Dragas. More than two months later, Dragas sent Sullivan a revision that expanded the goals to 65.

The Post was unable to obtain a copy of that document, which is about six pages long, according to two people who have seen it and were willing to discuss it only anonymously because it is a sensitive personnel issue. They said that most of Dragas’s additions to Sullivan’s proposed goals were focused on the medical center and the university’s finances.

Sullivan wrote in her e-mail to the full board that Dragas gave her less than a week to respond before the goals would become permanent. Sullivan wrote that of the 65 goals, 22 had not previously been mentioned, four required actions by a meeting at the end of the month and one unspecified goal “requires me to do something that the General Counsel tells me I am not legally authorized to do.” Missing from the list, Sullivan wrote, was her own “most urgent goal” to raise employee compensation.

“I want to emphasize that I do not object to having goals nor to being evaluated,” Sullivan wrote in the e-mail. “Board oversight is ideally at a strategic or policy level. By contrast, most of these goals are operational, some narrowly so, and some reaching three or four levels into the organization.”

Dragas said in an interview that the e-mail is “a snapshot in a long, multi-step process” of setting goals. In responding to the charge of micromanagement, Dragas said: “Micromanagement is a subjective term.”

Sullivan wrote that most flagship presidents are typically given “a one-page list of six or seven high-level strategic goals.” Three current or former public university presidents said in interviews that the number of goals assigned to Sullivan indicates a probable overstepping of authority.

Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, would not give an optimum number of goals for a president to have, but she said that goal-setting requires creating a lengthy list and paring it down. Boards and presidents should work together on that, she said.

“Too often in higher education, whenever boards become more engaged, they are accused of micromanagement,” Neal said. (Her daughter, Alexandra Petri, works for The Post’s editorial department.)

Support for a key goal

Most board members declined to publicly discuss the tense exchange between Sullivan and the board last month. William H. Goodwin Jr., a Richmond businessman who was recently appointed to the board, said that differences of opinion and discussion are central to a healthy governing board. He was angry that the internal e-mail was shared with The Post and argued that the news media should not report on issues that cast U-Va. in a poor light. He said there is no tension between the board and the administration.

“You are making a mountain of a molehill,” Goodwin said. “My involvement is really going smoothly. The only deterrent is the Freedom of Information Act,” he said, and state laws that require the board to meet publicly.

The day after Sullivan e-mailed the full board, Dragas responded to the group, according to a copy of that e-mail obtained by The Post. Dragas wrote that the goals were a “starting point” that “echo multiple voices” on the board.

Dragas wrote that Sullivan’s goals would be discussed during the board’s February meeting. Two people with knowledge of that meeting, which was closed to the public, said the list of goals was pared down.

“All I’m going to say is that we got to where we needed to be,” Dragas said in an interview. She declined to discuss the events of the summer or any of her previous concerns about the president.

When the full board met last month, it approved backing Sullivan’s goal to increase faculty compensation over the next few years. For the 62 schools in the Association of American Universities, which represents the top public and private research institutions, U-Va. ranks No. 26 in average faculty salary.

U-Va. faculty members have asked for higher pay for years, and Sullivan has said she made the issue a priority early in her presidency. Sullivan’s supporters were surprised and angered in June when Dragas described “issues of declining relative faculty compensation” as a challenge facing the university that led to the president’s dismissal.

This school year, Sullivan has made faculty compensation her highest priority. To get U-Va. into the top 20 of AAU schools, she said, U-Va. would need to add $65 million to its payroll over four years. In November, Sullivan asked the board for its formal support so that university fundraisers could get to work.

Instead, according to minutes from the meeting, Dragas asked the administration to develop “a comprehensive, financial, operating, and capital plan that details the estimated incremental costs of top strategic priorities” over the next four years.

Dozens of U-Va. staff members set aside other responsibilities and worked through the holiday season to create the financial plan and vet it with board members, according to several staff members. The finished report was more than 100 pages long and proposed multiple revenue sources, including charging varying tuition rates depending on a student’s year or major, according to several people who have read the plan.

The university declined to release a copy of the report, saying it is still in draft form and, therefore, exempt from the state’s open-
records law.

The board planned to discuss the report at its meeting last month, according to an original agenda, but it was dropped without explanation.

Frustration ricocheted through Sullivan’s staff, according to several staff members. Dragas said she was never made aware of such frustration and that the plan was not ready for public discussion.

Dragas said Thursday that she was worried about promising higher pay without securing funding. She said she is personally opposed to suggesting tuition increases of any sort.

At the board meeting late last month, board members presented and approved two unexpected resolutions: One affirmed the goal of increasing compensation. The other supported the “continued development and refinement” of the four-year financial plan.

“The senior administration’s role and work is to do long-term planning,” Dragas said. “It’s the right use of their time, and it’s an investment in the university’s future.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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