Sullivan seeks lessons from U-Va. crisis

Teresa A. Sullivan concedes that she may have made mistakes. Maybe the University of Virginia president should have challenged leaders of the school’s governing board when they told her in early June that they had enough votes to fire her.

“Maybe that was something that I misjudged and I should have asked to have a hearing and a public vote,” she said in her most extensive public comments since the tumult in June, when she was ousted and then reinstated.

Told by U-Va. Rector Helen E. Dragas that 15 of 16 board members wanted a new president, Sullivan said she worried that a public airing of the question would throw the campus into turmoil. But forcing a robust board debate at that critical moment might have altered the course of events.

“I didn’t really want to put the university through a difficult period,” she said. “As it turned out, I did not save the university from a difficult period at all.”

In her Madison Hall office lined with shelves of sociology books, Sullivan reflected on Monday afternoon on the crisis that made her one of the best-known university presidents in America — the celebrated survivor of a clash that has come to stand for the uncertain future of public higher education.

Seven weeks after she was returned to her post, Sullivan trod cautiously through many questions. She refused to speak about last week’s abrupt resignation of the university’s chief operating officer, Michael Strine, amid questions about his role in her ouster. She avoided comment on personal feelings about Dragas. Pressed several ways, she said she does not know what precipitated the effort to force her out.

Sullivan and Dragas pledged in July to work together to advance the university’s goals. The two will do so in public Wednesday and Thursday at a Board of Visitors retreat in Richmond that could provide an early hint of how well they can achieve that and how much tension remains.

In the interview, Sullivan was asked whether Dragas ever apologized to her. “I don’t think I want to go there,” she said.

The start of it

Looking back, Sullivan, 63, said she is still unable to pinpoint red flags that may have warned her that her presidency was in peril.

The 18-day leadership crisis at the historic Charlottesville campus started June 8, when Sullivan was told that the board wanted her to leave. Soon the campus was in an uproar about the secretive process and the loss of a popular president. The controversy made national news, and on June 26 the board reinstated her.

Sullivan noted that at a spring board meeting, she was praised by one board member — and applauded by all — for her work with alumni and community leaders.

“Possibly, I was overly lulled by what I saw as positive signals,” she said.

Sullivan said she has drawn lessons from the crisis — the importance of communication with members of the board besides the rector and vice rector, for example.

She was blindsided by the depth of the board opposition Dragas depicted on June 8. Later, Sullivan would learn that her support was broader than she had been told.

“In retrospect, I wish I had communicated more frequently with more members of the board,” she said Monday.

“I would rather hear about the problem before it becomes a formal problem, and so I’m looking for ways, informally, to talk with board members about things they’re concerned about,” she said. “. . . I can’t always guess in advance. I can’t guess, period, what might be the concerns that board members might have. So I’ve encouraged them: ‘Don’t believe that I’m a mind reader. I’m not.’ ”

Lessons learned

During the 70-minute interview, Sullivan talked about how she has changed as a leader by reciting a quote from Shakespeare: Sweet are the uses of adversity, which like the toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel.

“I think we do learn things about ourselves and about our institution — not things you necessarily had planned to learn or wanted to learn, because none of us wants to head into a difficult time,” she said.

She said she has learned “so much about this university community I would not have learned any other way” and described herself as “astonished” by the outpouring of support from faculty, staff, alumni and students.

“It is certainly a sobering experience to go through something like this,” she said. “And, you know, I just hope that I learned the right lessons.”

Asked about calls for the resignation of Dragas, which were numerous in the heat of the crisis, Sullivan said Monday that she did not seek any such action, in spite of news reports that said she would return as president only if the rector were removed.

“The board makes the decision about who its leader is, and that is right and proper. I don’t get to pick my boss,” she said.

When asked if she, personally, had feelings on the issue, Sullivan replied: “Not that I want to share with you.”

In a statement Tuesday, Dragas noted that she voted with the board to reinstate Sullivan. “I have extended my sincere apologies,” she said. “It’s time to move forward and, as demonstrated by this retreat and our agenda, we are doing so guided by a spirit of constructive leadership, committed to full collaboration with President Sullivan and keenly focused on the future of U.Va.”

Many on campus have called for a thorough investigation of what caused the June crisis.

Last week, 14 prominent alumni wrote an open letter insisting that “a painstakingly fair and civil” review be done, suggesting that the crisis would not end until “board members finally explain candidly, to satisfy common sense, what really motivated them to act so precipitously.”

Asked about the letter, Sullivan spoke about the board’s interest in governance issues, which will be addressed at the retreat. She stopped short of embracing a thorough analysis of what went wrong.

“I’m not sure I’m the right person to make the judgment about that,” she said.

She paused at the question of whether she personally needed to know.

“Not really,” she said. “. . . I think it would be very easy to get psychologically stuck on an episode like that, and I don’t think that would be healthy — not healthy for individuals and probably not healthy for the institution. I think moving forward right now is probably the best thing we can do in terms of the institution. . . . I don’t think reengaging past events right now is going to take us where we need to go.”

At the same time, Sullivan said she encounters alumni who ask her for explanations she can’t fully provide. “They’re wondering, ‘What’s happened at the university? What just went on?’ ” she said.

Still, she maintained, “I think they would much rather see us have a plan for where we’re going and not just kind of dwell on what happened, and I think I can give them that.”

The way Sullivan describes it, the original wording in the June 10 announcement of her departure remains the best summation of her understanding of the conflict. “We formulated it as a ‘philosophical difference of opinion,’ ”she said. “I’m not sure I can improve on that.”

Exactly who was involved in the effort to remove her from office, she doesn’t know, she said.

“I really don’t think I can answer that,” she said. “What I have to go on as evidence is not much, and I can’t point to anything that suggests there were other forces. . . . Maybe there were. There was certainly lots of speculation. . . . On the other hand, academics are very good at theories, so there were a lot of theories that went around.”

Asked whether she trusts Dragas, Sullivan replied: “I think we are both committed to making it work. . . . I completely believe that she cares about the future of the University of Virginia. And so do I.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and the 2014 election.
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