Teresa Sullivan: The ousted U-Va. leader who may regain the post

Early in her tenure as University of Virginia president, Teresa Sullivan sat down with her vice presidents and made this request: “Stay with me.”

If they would remain in their jobs for 18 months, time for Sullivan to prove herself to them, she would give them at least that long to prove themselves to her.

All of them stayed. But when the honeymoon was over, Sullivan’s job was on the line.

Sullivan arrived at Virginia’s insular state flagship two years ago as the ultimate outsider. And she worked her way in, building a support network and winning allies across the length and width of the Grounds — from stodgy, old-guard alumni to the freshly minted students on the Lawn, from suits at the business school to costume designers in the drama department.

“You can move fast, or you can move incrementally. But it doesn’t matter unless people follow you,” said David Leblang, the politics department chairman. “People follow her.”

But out of the sight of faculty and students, dissent was deepening. Sullivan, it turned out, had a major blind spot: She apparently failed to detect an erosion in support from her governing board. Leaders of the Board of Visitors began working in secret last fall to build a case against her. Rector Helen E. Dragas, claiming the backing of other members, forced Sullivan’s resignation on June 10.

To Sullivan’s critics on the board, her patient, deliberate approach was a liability. They wanted her to enact change, not pave the way for it — to stop running for president and be the president.

“Simply put, we want the university to be a leader in fulfilling its mission, not a follower,” Dragas told the board last week.

Dragas may have underestimated the breadth of Sullivan’s support. Virtually every conceivable campus constituency has mobilized in her defense, including students, academic deans and rank-and-file faculty members. Tuesday, the board that voted for an interim successor to Sullivan will gather here to consider giving her the job back.

The groundswell for Sullivan was fueled by outrage over the board’s secrecy and debate over the mission of major public universities. But it is also a reflection of the support she has gathered on campus.

“This woman has been president less than 24 months,” said Robert Kemp, a business professor. “And to see this outcry — I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The image of Sullivan gliding past 2,000 screaming supporters and through the doors of the Rotunda on June 18 for a seemingly final encounter with the board illustrated how lopsided the battle for U-Va. really was.

Yes, Dragas had allies on the board. But Sullivan had the people.

‘Provost on the prowl’

Teresa Ann Sullivan, 62, came to Charlottesville from the University of Michigan, where she held the No. 2 job. She was known as the “provost on the prowl” for her habit of visiting the university’s many schools and colleges.

“We viewed her as a change agent,” said Andrea Newman, a member of Michigan's board of regents, who credited Sullivan with innovating despite budget constraints.

Before Sullivan arrived here, she asked campus leaders to list three things she should read to better understand Thomas Jefferson’s university. One was a student’s honor thesis featuring interviews with three U-Va. presidents.

It helped Sullivan understand the culture of a school that calls freshmen “first-years” and the campus the Grounds, capitalizes its Lawn and withholds the honorific “Doctor” from those without medical degrees, a place where football-game attire is “guys in ties and girls in pearls.”

In her first months, Sullivan seemed to be everywhere: at arts performances, wrestling matches or faculty meetings. She crisscrossed the nation for alumni events, and pumped lawmakers for research dollars. She tried to attend at least one event for every U-Va. sport. She met state legislators on their home turf.

Sullivan urged everyone to call her Terry, even as she carefully filed away both the first and last names of all she met.

She cut quite a contrast to her predecessor, John T. Casteen, the ultimate campus insider, who holds three U-Va. degrees. His final president’s report, in 2010, was a bound book, 70 pages on heavy paper. Sullivan’s first was issued online as a few-frills digital document, along with a video of her urging people to read it.

Kenneth G. Elzinga, an economics professor, first met Sullivan at a fundraiser in Los Angeles, where she gave a speech and joined alumni in a rousing rendition of the university victory song, “Good Ole Song.”

“What really floored me,” Elzinga said, “was that she already knew the words.”

Sullivan swiftly won over pre-1970 alumni, almost all male, a notable feat because she was the first female president.

And she won over faculty members who had felt disenfranchised. In one meeting, Sullivan told the assembled scholars that she shared their perspective. She had just finished editing her latest academic paper the previous night. She was one of them.

“She seemed to have all the goods — just the right balance of vision and experience, with a humane quality,” said history professor William I. Hitchcock.

Hearts and minds

Colleagues say one key to Sullivan’s administrative gift is an ability to win hearts and minds of administrators and faculty.

“She has a real relationship-based, relationship-centered presidency and she puts primacy on listening and getting to know people,” said Dorrie K. Fontaine, dean of the nursing school.

Sullivan, who declined to comment for this report, kept most of Casteen’s staff and brought almost no one from Michigan. Instead, she asked her leadership team for an 18-month commitment, vowing to trust their collective guidance.

“Sometimes leaders will come in and clean house — that wasn’t her style,” said Marcus L. Martin, an interim vice president in Sullivan’s first year and now a vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity.

From the start, Sullivan outlined what she called “Sullivan’s laws”: Never surprise an administrator. Never punish the messenger. Don’t hide bad news; meet it head-on. People and time are our greatest resources; don’t waste them. When dealing with a difficult matter, don’t leave anyone out, or else be prepared for fallout.

Staff meetings began and ended on time and typically lasted an hour and a half. She asked vice presidents for “weather reports,” a chance to share good news, and “jeopardies,” to broach bad news.

Sullivan worked out regularly at a university recreation center, and she liked to chat with members of the faculty and staff while she exercised.One of her favorite regimens is something called volksmarching, a noncompetitive form of fitness walking.

While many university presidents surround themselves with handlers, Sullivan preferred to act alone. She paid visits to university students in the hospital and met one-on-one with reporters. She often held meetings with university leaders and colleagues in the sunroom off her kitchen.

Sullivan campaigned for transparency at U-Va.

The day after Graham Spanier was ousted as Penn State president amid a child sex-abuse scandal, Sullivan told her governing board she wanted to create a culture at her university that tolerated questioning authority and even whistleblowing.

The tone should be “bad news can rise to the top of this organization without any messenger being shot for bearing it,” she said.

Sullivan arrived shortly after the May 2010 death of Yeardley Love, a lacrosse player killed by her former boyfriend,George Huguely V. When the next school year was underway, Sullivan hosted a Day of Dialogue, opening up discussion on how students, faculty and others could better care for one another.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is real empathy,’ ” said Robert O’Neil, a former U-Va. president and friend of Sullivan’s.

Sullivan is married to U-Va. law professor Douglas Laycock; they have two grown sons. She has few detractors in Charlottesville. But recently she issued a rebuttal to a blogger’s account of accusations from 1990, when a reviewer alleged scientific misconduct in a book Sullivan wrote with Elizabeth Warren, now a Democratic candidate for Senate in Massachusetts, and another co-author.

At the time, Sullivan was on the University of Texas faculty. The University of Texas investigated the allegations and found them to be false, as did the National Science Foundation, which funded the research, said U-Va. spokeswoman Carol Wood.

Social science

Sullivan was born in Kewanee, Ill., an only child. Her father died of a heart condition when she was in sixth grade, after extracting a promise from his wife that their daughter would go to college.

Sullivan grew up in Little Rock and Jackson, Miss. Her Catholic high school was the first in the state to integrate. The experience fed her career choice: She entered Michigan State as a budding sociologist.enthralled by the social structures behind Jim Crow.

Sullivan went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Chicago and join the sociology faculty at the University of Texas. There, she rose to executive vice chancellor. of the Texas system, overseeing nine campuses.Then she went to Michigan.

“There are aspects of administration, they’re like a chess game,” Sullivan said in a 2010 interview. “You’re looking forward three or four moves.”

Staff writers Anita Kumar and Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.

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