E-mails show U-Va. rector Helen Dragas saw little warning of crisis in president’s ouster

The embattled leader of the University of Virginia board miscalculated the fallout of her secretive effort to oust the school’s popular president and scrambled for support from within the university community as the crisis unfolded earlier this year, according to more than 2,500 pages of previously unreleased e-mails The Washington Post obtained from U-Va.

The e-mails, which the university provided after a public records request, show Rector Helen E. Dragas promoting the need for swift change and trying to quell protest as turmoil and nationwide media attention rocked the Charlottesville campus in June.

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See e-mails obtained by the Post in response to a public-records request.
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See e-mails obtained by the Post in response to a public-records request.

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The crisis at U-Va. started after the forced resignation of Teresa Sullivan, the university’s first female president, was announced June 10. As it became clear that Dragas had led an effort to oust Sullivan, outrage grew among students, faculty and alumni. The board of visitors met June 26 and reinstated Sullivan.

Dragas has given few recent public interviews, but her e-mails in May and June reveal some of her thoughts and actions. Although often circumspect, the new e-mails show Dragas did not give up easily, believed she could turn what she described in a June 17 e-mail as a “tsunami of criticism” around and thought she was still on track to “recruit the most competent leader for the University in the coming year.”

In a response to questions after the e-mails were released Wednesday, Dragas said she doubted “anyone could have predicted exactly how events would unfold.” She said the board “sought to balance transparency and accountability with fairness [and] legal restrictions on what could be said and respect for those involved.”

The crisis grew so intense that Dragas and another board member spent a total of more than $250,000 for public relations efforts and reached out across campus looking for support. She e-mailed the board’s lone student member June 12, looking for help: “Do you know of students on grounds who might be willing to assist with a communications effort by engaging constructively in the blogs as guided by a communications consultant?”

On June 14, Dragas tried to recruit a nationally known U-Va. politics professor, Larry J. Sabato, to write an opinion piece supporting her effort. In an e-mail with the subject line “your assistance is critical,” Dragas asked Sabato to write an op-ed for The Post or the New York Times — and she used bold letters to write the word “quickly.” The piece should explain why the board “felt that urgent action was necessary to reverse a lack of action and vision at UVA,” she wrote.

In another e-mail after Sullivan’s ouster, Dragas asked for working space on campus for herself and other board members.

“I’m expecting John Nau, [then-vice rector] Mark Kington, and perhaps others to be in and out between now and Monday,” Dragas e-mailed the board’s secretary. “A conference room in Madison Hall would be perfect.”

Sullivan’s office is on the first floor of Madison Hall. The board secretary instead arranged for space in a pavilion on the university’s iconic Lawn and reminded Dragas of the state’s open meetings law: “As you know, more than two members conducting University business is a Board meeting, whether it is a formal meeting or an informal assemblage.”

Dragas responded: “Maybe we need two spaces — there’s a chance three or four of us could be working at the same time.”

Public perception of the crisis became an immediate problem. Within a day of the announcement of Sullivan’s resignation, Dragas received a forwarded e-mail written by a U-Va. foundation trustee who had heard her speak during a conference call.

“I was stunned to hear Helen say on the call that she hoped that the noise would die down in a day or two and that they were shooting for the end of the week to get some further communication out,” he wrote. “She was urged otherwise on the call, but it appears that the BOV [Board of Visitors] has no appreciation of how these kinds of events typically spin out. “

He advised: “They need a real professional to manage the communication process.”

Dragas later exchanged messages with a number of public relations consultants, including those from New York-based Hill+Knowlton Strategies. At one point, according to the e-mails, it was unclear who was going to pay for it.

The bill for Hill+Knowlton was $208,577, according to records released separately this week. Dragas’s board ally, Nau, covered the cost to “help the University turn the page on recent events and refocus on the future,” according to a statement from the university. Dragas said she spent $45,000 of her own money on consultants.

In the new e-mails, there is little sign that Dragas sensed the crisis to come.

On May 31, she e-mailed three board members with a link to a Wall Street Journal story about online learning. “We have to stop standing still while others are racing ahead,” she wrote.

Board member Marvin Gilliam asked that she keep him updated “on your conversations with others and what consensus or conflict may be emerging.”

She replied: “Things are going well so far — some surprise but no real disagreement over the core issues.”

What Dragas heard after the crisis was far more impassioned.

The mother of a first-year student praised the ouster, saying that it was unlikely Sullivan “truly understood the South, the revered traditions of U.Va. nor how to discern what to keep stable and what to change in moving the institution forward.”

But the criticism grew sharp and unforgiving. Many asked Dragas to resign.

Dragas’s attempt to oust Sullivan and her campaign to make it stick ultimately failed. The board unanimously reinstated Sullivan on June 26. Dragas also stayed. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) reappointed her on June 29 to another four-year term.

In her Wednesday response, Dragas said, “Some people strongly and sincerely disagreed with the Board’s decision and I respect their view.”

 
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