Leadership drama consumes U-Va.; board names Zeithaml interim president

June 19, 2012

A week of chaos and uncertainty set off by the removal of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan ended early Tuesday when the university’s Board of Visitors appointed an interim leader after almost 12 hours of debate.

Carl P. Zeithaml, dean of the university’s top-ranked McIntire School of Commerce, will start Aug. 16.

“We just feel that he has a unique skill set, considering the challenges we face,” Vice Rector Mark Kington said before the vote. The tally was not unanimous: board member Heywood Fralin voted against the appointment, and Robert Hardie and A. Macdonald Caputo abstained. Another member, Glynn Key, was absent.

Zeithaml has a bachelor’s in economics from Notre Dame, a master’s in health and hospital administration from the University of Florida and a doctorate in strategic management from the University of Maryland. He has worked at U-Va. for 15 years, with previous stints at the University of North Carolina, the University of Maryland and Texas A&M. A biographical sketch says he has led McIntire to global preeminence in business education.

The vote on the interim president came after Sullivan met with the board on Monday and delivered a sharp defense of her two-year tenure, her first significant comments since her ouster became public June 10. Sullivan was cheered and supported by more than 2,000 demonstrators who gathered on the Lawn in front of the Rotunda.

“I did not cause this reaction in the last 10 days,” Sullivan said in a statement, “but perhaps the reaction speaks to the depth of the connections I have made in the last 22 months.”

In public remarks Monday, the leader of the board, Rector Helen E. Dragas, sought a resolute but contrite tone. She expressed regret — not for removing Sullivan, but for how the transition was executed.

The board sought Sullivan’s resignation without a formal meeting or vote, through a campaign waged privately by Dragas, Vice Rector Mark Kington and a few others, according to several people in contact with the board. The episode plunged the campus into turmoil, from which it has yet to recover.

“We certainly never wished nor intended to ignite such a reaction from the community of trust and honor that we all love so dearly,” Dragas read from a prepared statement. “You — our U-Va. family — deserved better from this board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.”

But Dragas added: “The Board of Visitors exists to make these kinds of judgments on behalf of all the constituencies of the university. . . . Simply put, we have the responsibility, on behalf of the entire community, to make these important and often difficult calls.”

Protesters packed the Lawn, a mix of students, professors, toddlers and doctors in lab coats. One young man held a sign that read, “Emperor Dragas, Darth Kington don’t speak for me.”

A sharp critique came from John T. Casteen, the revered 20-year president of U-Va. Sullivan’s predecessor arrived on the Lawn to thunderous applause. Casteen had urged the board — in vain — to hold Monday’s meeting in public, saying it was what the public deserved.

“What has happened heretofore has been kept in silence,” he said. “That’s not how Virginia works.”

Behind closed doors, board members reportedly asked Sullivan no questions. One member — medical executive Heywood Fralin — was said to have thanked her for her remarks.

Then Sullivan emerged and acknowledged her supporters. As the crowd chanted “TE-RE-SA,” she said, “I appreciate this so much.”

In her statement to the board, Sullivan defended her administration and its measured pace of change, which Dragas had repeatedly criticized as too slow.

“I have been described as an incrementalist. It is true,” Sullivan said. “Sweeping action may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership, but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear.”

Sullivan said she had worked in collaboration with vice presidents, deans and faculty leaders, building a foundation for “greater change” later. “This is the best, most constructive, most long lasting, and beneficial way to change a university. Until the last ten days, the change at U-Va. has not been disruptive change, and it has not been high-risk change. Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university.”

Sullivan indicated that board leaders pressed her to make “deep, top-down cuts,” potentially eroding the university’s portfolio of core programs.

“A university that does not teach the full range of arts and sciences will no longer be a university,” she said. “Certainly it will no longer be respected as such by its former peers.” She underlined the word “former.’’

In a proposed settlement, Sullivan would receive her presidential compensation package, $680,000, for another year of sabbatical, research and consulting after her Aug. 15 departure, according to a person briefed on the document. She could then return to teaching sociology at a salary of $170,000, plus about $360,000 in deferred compensation.

Dragas has hired Hill+Knowlton, a public relations firm, to help the board ride out the backlash from Sullivan’s ouster, two knowledgeable university employees said. The U-Va. Foundation is picking up the tab.

Dragas met privately with U-Va. faculty leaders Monday morning at an undisclosed locale. Afterward, the Executive Council of the Faculty Senate issued a statement asking that Sullivan be reinstated and that the naming of an interim leader be delayed. The faculty leaders also asked that Dragas and Kington resign and that a faculty representative be added to the board.

Major donors to the university also continued to call for a change.

“The whole handling of this thing was outrageous,’’ said Mortimer Caplin, a lawyer and U-Va. alumnus who has donated millions of dollars to the school. He said the makeup of the board needs to change but stopped short of saying who needs to be removed.

Sullivan’s ouster has taken an incalculable toll, according to Casteen and others, in terms of potential for loss of donors, faculty defections and censure from higher education leaders. The action has spawned more than a dozen letters of protest and no-confidence votes from various campus constituencies. Sullivan herself warned that deans at competing schools “are setting aside funds now to raid the University of Virginia” of its stars.

Between Sunday night and Monday morning, a vandal spray-painted the letters “G-R-E-E-E-D” on the six columns of the historic Rotunda. Campus workers painted and repainted them until the letters were obscured.

Dragas had lined up a candidate for interim chief before Sullivan’s departure was announced, according to several officials who have knowledge of the situation but were not authorized to speak. He was Edward Miller, an ex-officio U-Va. board member and former chief executive of Johns Hopkins Medicine. But Miller has since said he does not want to serve, the sources said. Provost John Simon also was said to have taken his name out of the running.

Kumar reported from Richmond.

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