At University of Virginia, Sullivan supporters rally for hours

June 24, 2012

One after another, more than 20 University of Virginia faculty members stood on the steps of the iconic Rotunda on Sunday afternoon and pledged their support for ousted President Teresa Sullivan, urging the school’s governing board to reinstate her.

Putting Sullivan back at the helm, several speakers said, would be the easiest way for the board to regain the trust and respect of the hundreds who gathered at the rally as well as the thousands of others with U-Va. ties around the globe who have protested Sullivan’s forced resignation two weeks ago. While previous rallies had a tone of anger and frustration as faculty listed grievances, this gathering was filled with optimistic hope.

“What happens next will be a lesson in leadership and character,” said David W. Breneman, an education professor who teaches about leadership and is the former dean of the U-Va. Curry School of Education. “True leaders have the wisdom and the courage to embrace new understandings and change course. . . . The board has an opportunity to strengthen its role and the esteem in which it is held.”

Dozens of those in the crowd held bright-orange placards featuring a Thomas Jefferson quote: “It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the board will meet to discuss the employment status of Sullivan, who two weeks ago agreed to resign because of “philosophical differences” with board members. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) told the members Friday that they must resolve the situation at that meeting or they will all lose their positions.

Leaders of the board say they asked Sullivan to step down after months of communication with the president about the future of the university and its medical center. Helen E. Dragas, who is the head of the board, has not said specifically why Sullivan was not suited for the job, but last week Dragas released a list of 10 problems facing the university that its leader will have to confront, including expanding online education, keeping the hospital competitive and increasing research funding.

For the most part, the speakers avoided the idea that Sullivan might not regain her job Tuesday. Instead, they focused on a future with her as president. An economics professor even spoke of how Sullivan will need to forgive the board before continuing on — something he said he knew she was capable of doing.

Many faculty members lamented how the events of the past two weeks have taken them away from research and other summer tasks, but they marveled at how the controversy has bound them together and forced a discussion of not only the future of U-Va. but also the future of public higher education.

Charles Mathewes, a professor of religious studies, thanked the board for sparking such a discussion. Looking at the crowd before him, he said of the rally: “This is the most important revelation of the last two weeks. . . . We care far more for this place than we ever thought we would.”

The crowd included a range of ages, from retired faculty to baby boomer professors to undergraduate students to the young children of alumni. Some wore their academic regalia or graduation mortarboards. A few sported seersucker suits and bow ties. They carried a variety of signs: “Keep calm and reinstate,” “I stand with Pres. Sullivan” and “Learning > Profit.”

A banner above the podium emphasized that “Sullivan” contains the letters U-V-A.

The speakers, including several undergraduate and graduate students, described their interactions with Sullivan. During nearly three hours, Sullivan was hailed as bold, visionary, capable, courageous and personable. Several used the word “grace” in describing her management style.

They commended her for involving a diverse set of people when making decisions, being more transparent than previous administrators and increasing “financial accountability and responsibility.”

“I had never heard of a negative comment about her” until two weeks ago, when board members announced their complaints, said Leigh Grossman, a professor at the medical school and chief of the pediatric infectious disease division. “How can that be?”

Speaker after speaker concluded with these rallying cries: “President Sullivan is the president of the University of Virginia!” “Reinstate President Sullivan!” “We want President Sullivan!”

On Tuesday, they will learn whether the board agrees.

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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