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Senior U-Va. official resigns abruptly following leadership crisis

By and Donna St. George,

The University of Virginia’s top financial official resigned abruptly Tuesday, six weeks after the end of a prolonged leadership crisis that paralyzed the campus.

The departure of Michael Strine, U-Va.’s chief operating officer, came amid continuing questions about what role he played in the attempt to oust President Teresa Sullivan in June. Strine has been accused of being disloyal to Sullivan, who hired him a year ago, and too closely aligned with Rector Helen E. Dragas and other governing board members who sought the president’s removal.

Soon after Sullivan was forced to resign in early June, Strine said he was not involved. But support for him at the flagship public university appeared to dwindle following Sullivan’s June 26 reinstatement. The president has expressed distrust of Strine, said a senior university official. Another person with knowledge of the situation said the resignation was forced.

Strine’s resignation provides a glimpse at tensions that lingered on the Charlottesville campus even as top officials pushed a message of reconciliation and unity. Sullivan wrote in a statement Tuesday that Strine “recently determined that it would be in the best interest of the university that he step down and allow me to do some necessary internal restructuring.”

Strine was not in his office Tuesday afternoon, an assistant said, and could not be reached elsewhere for comment. In a statement released by the university, Strine said: “Though it is hard to step aside, I am confident that this step helps the university and those it serves.”

Strine will receive a severance package of $847,308. That includes 18 months of pay, plus six months of pay for his wife, Sharon Strine, who worked in marketing and has also resigned, according to an agreement signed Monday. Strine’s annual salary was $450,000, a university spokeswoman said.

Strine’s departure was widely anticipated in the wake of the June crisis. But many guessed he would leave only when he could publicly announce acquiring another job.

Tuesday’s announcement came when the campus was relatively empty, with summer school over and the start of fall classes still weeks away.

“I think it’s healthy as it allows the administration to get back to the business of managing the financial future of the university,” said David Leblang, chairman of the politics department, who called the job “a terribly important position at this moment in the life of the university.”

When Sullivan’s presidency was in limbo in June, Strine was one of the school’s most visible leaders.

But rumors spread that Strine had worked against the president in his dealings with Dragas and the governing Board of Visitors. On June 15, Strine read a statement at a staff meeting that said he was not involved with Sullivan’s removal. During that meeting, Strine said he had met with board members who had posed critical questions about Sullivan, but he told them to take their concerns to her directly.

At one point in June, Sullivan’s allies said she would return to the job only if Strine left.

In the months preceding the crisis, Strine and Dragas exchanged numerous e-mails that were nearly always friendly and, at times, admiring, according to documents requested by The Washington Post.

On Nov. 10, Strine e-mailed Dragas and complimented her “critically important leadership,” which he backed up with a numbered list of three examples.

“I just saw this humbling message,” Dragas wrote in reply the same day. “Thank you for your kind words — but I was sitting through the meeting thinking about how easy my role is made when there is a person to my left of your substance and caliber. I truly don’t know how you manage the volume and complexity of your portfolio, but I’m extremely grateful that you are so effective and, importantly, so articulate.”

“Thank you,” Strine wrote. “I am hopeful that together we can make a real difference.”

In addition to discussing the university’s financial and strategic planning, the two sent each other news articles, arranged times for phone calls and exchanged compliments.

In November, Strine sent Dragas a copy of a personality test he had taken. Later that month, he and his wife were among those Dragas invited to her home over Thanksgiving weekend.

After Sullivan was reinstated, Strine still had some support on the board. But nearly all leaders in the administration had turned against him, said officials who declined to be named.

Strine was one of Sullivan’s first big hires after she took over as president. He previously worked at Johns Hopkins University, where he was a vice president for finance and chief financial officer. Before that, he held various jobs in Delaware.

“I think he did the right thing in the best interests of the university,” Faculty Senate Chairman George Cohen said Tuesday. “It’s never a happy thing when someone resigns, but I think it will help us restore trust and help us move the university forward.”

Strine replaced Leonard W. Sandridge, who had worked at the university for more than 40 years and has a road on campus named for him. Sandridge has been credited with balancing his service to the board and to the previous president, John T. Casteen III — something Strine was criticized for not doing well enough, according to several university officials.

The university’s statement about Strine’s departure included a long list of his duties, including financial planning and budgeting, strategic planning, and collaboration with the university’s medical center.

Dragas released a statement about Strine’s departure that praised Strine’s “leadership skills and enthusiasm,” and credited him with leaving the university in “solid financial condition.”

Said Sullivan in a statement: “I feel confident that we will not skip a beat while we begin a national search for a new financial leader.”

© The Washington Post Company