Three members of U-Va. board were kept in dark about effort to oust Sullivan

June 14, 2012

At least three members of the 16-person Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia were not privy to the campaign to remove President Teresa Sullivan and learned of it, as she did, in conversations with the board’s leader late last week.

University Rector Helen E. Dragas said the board had voiced “overwhelming support” to replace Sullivan, who resigned Sunday. A spokesman for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who was not involved in the decision, said he was told it was unanimous.

But some board members who had supported Sullivan knew nothing of the plan to remove her until Dragas notified them late last week, according to former board members and a university official with knowledge of the situation but who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Dragas said the board’s concerns with Sullivan’s leadership had been the subject of “ongoing dialogue” for “an extended period of time.’’ She declined to comment on this issue Thursday, saying it was a personnel matter.

The move to replace Sullivan after less than two years has thrown the historic campus in Charlottesville into turmoil. On Thursday, the Executive Council of the university’s Faculty Senate passed a unanimous resolution voicing lack of confidence in the rector, vice rector and the entire Board of Visitors. The faculty group expressed strong support for Sullivan. Sullivan’s supporters have launched a petition and Facebook page.


Teresa Sullivan appears at a Bloomberg Innovation and Economy roundtable event in October. (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG)

In Charlottesville, the pro-Sullivan campaign claimed a casualty: Peter Kiernan, a New York investor, resigned as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Darden School Foundation. In a leaked e-mail, the business-school advocate acknowledged he had played a role in Sullivan’s ouster, which he kept confidential at Dragas’s request. His involvement sparked a backlash against him and the business campus, which prompted his resignation.

The sources said Dragas, a Virginia Beach developer with two degrees from U-Va., spearheaded the ouster along with vice rector Mark Kington, president of an Alexandria management company who was in business with Sen. Mark R. Warner (D).

The 16-member Board of Visitors never met or took a vote on Sullivan’s ouster. Instead, Dragas spoke to board members individually over a series of months.

Last week, after she had enough votes, Dragas phoned McDonnell to inform him. He and his staff were surprised, but have not questioned the decision or involved themselves in the aftermath.

Finance executive Macdonald Caputo, medical executive Heywood Fralin and attorney Vincent Mastracco did not know of the plan until its final days, the sources said. They, and possibly others, were contacted only after Dragas had the votes to remove Sullivan, and they acquiesced to the decision, according to the sources. None of the three board members replied to requests for comment.

Maria Everett, executive director of the FOIA Council, said state law allows boards to poll members by phone and e-mail and then take action, but she said the technique should not be used to circumvent the law.

Dragas called an emergency meeting of the board’s executive committee for Sunday afternoon to accept Sullivan’s resignation and authorize the rector to negotiate a severance package. But according to the sources, she called the meeting knowing that at least two members thought to favor Sullivan could not attend. Only three board members are needed for a quorum, university spokeswoman Carol Wood said. Dragas, Kington and a third member, real estate developer Hunter Craig, attended the meeting.

Caputo, an advisory director at Morgan Stanley who lives in Greenwich, Conn., had a fractured hip and was unable to travel. George Martin, managing partner at a prominent Richmond law firm, McGuire Woods, was in South Africa. Another board member, Marvin Gilliam, whose family owns a coal company in southwest Virginia, also did not attend.

“They have a duty to be more transparent,’’ said former governor James S. Gilmore III (R), who tried to reform the way members of the Boards of Visitors were selected when he was governor. “They have a duty to tell the public what they’re doing.”

Emergency meetings do not require the same three-day notice as other board meetings. The notice for the Sunday meeting went public around 9 a.m. Sunday.

House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said he was troubled that the board effectively took action without a meeting, and that Sunday’s meeting involved only three people.

“It just boggles my mind,’’ he said. “You might run a company like that but this is a public institution and a small number of people should not be making a decision.”

The board unanimously voted for Sullivan two years ago, but there were concerns that she was not a Virginian and had no prior connection to the university, unusual for a U-Va. president. There were also concerns among some older alumni that Sullivan was a woman.

“I don’t think she was a compromise candidate,’’ another former board member said. “We were excited we found someone with her credentials.”

In her first year, she never received a formal evaluation, but board members said they thought she was doing a good job. “Things were going as well as they have gone,’’ a former board member said.

Dragas and two other board members gave Sullivan a performance evaluation in November, but other board members were not invited, according to one person with knowledge of the situation but not authorized to speak. Dragas later reported to the full board about the evaluation.

Dragas indicated in an email that Kington was involved in the review.

“I refer you to board meeting minutes from the fall of last year when the board adopted procedures for presidential review, which were followed,’’ Dragas wrote. “There were ongoing discussions between the Vice Rector, the President, and myself, as often as bi-weekly, on areas of presidential responsibility. At no time did I conduct a personnel review of the President with no other members present.”

Sullivan wrote a frank, 12-page Academic Strategy memo in May that expressed both her strategic concerns about the university’s academic performance and her vision for how best to respond. She gave the document to Dragas, but some other board members never received it, according to the sources.

On Thursday, the two top deputies to Sullivan issued a joint statement calling the Board of Visitors’ action “resolute and authoritative.”

The Board of Visitors has called a special meeting for Monday to discuss interim candidates to replace Sullivan. Sullivan, a sociologist and former University of Michigan provost, will have had the briefest term of any U-Va. president.

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