Leaders of the university’s governing board ousted Sullivan last week largely because of her unwillingness to consider dramatic program cuts in the face of dwindling resources and for her perceived reluctance to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate chief executive.
Sullivan’s resignation after less than two years has prompted an unprecedented backlash on the historic Grounds: a flurry of no-confidence votes and protest letters from groups of faculty, administrators and students; a 2,000-signature petition; and a Facebook protest page with more than 3,000 members. Many want the enormously popular president reinstated.
Nearly everyone at the Charlottesville campus thought Sullivan was off to a promising start. She spent her first year in office installing an estimable team of top administrators and her second year strengthening the university’s academic model, just as she had been tasked by the board that hired her.
But at least one key player did not agree: Helen Dragas, a savvy, fiscally conservative developer from Virginia Beach appointed to the board in 2008 by then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and promoted to rector of the 16-person board last summer. Her misgivings about Sullivan would pit the university’s first female rector against its first female president.
The following account is based on conversations with more than a dozen current and former board members, state and university officials, faculty and others with direct knowledge of the events. Some spoke on the record; others did not, saying they were not authorized to speak. Board members referred inquiries to Dragas, who said she cannot discuss personnel matters.
Dragas had reservations about Sullivan from the start, the sources said. By the time she took the reins as rector, Dragas was becoming convinced that Sullivan would not make the hard spending decisions necessary to keep U-Va. competitive in a volatile higher education marketplace. In conversations before and since the ouster, Dragas has portrayed Sullivan as an adequate day-to-day caretaker but someone incapable of long-term vision.
Dragas laid the groundwork for Sullivan’s removal over several months, working in secret with a small team of collaborators. They included vice rector Mark Kington, a venture capitalist from Alexandria and former business partner to Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), and Peter Kiernan, a New York investor who led the foundation of the university’s business school.
On Friday, Michael Strine, U-Va.’s chief operating officer and one of Sullivan’s top deputies, read a statement at a staff meeting to quell rumors that he, too, was involved in her removal. He acknowledged meeting with members of the governing board and said they posed critical questions about Sullivan. He said he told the board members to take their concerns to Sullivan, according to two people who were there.
Strine declined an interview request Saturday but provided this statement:
“It is my role to work on behalf of both the President and the Board of Visitors. It is also my role to regularly meet with members of the Board of Visitors at their request on a variety of issues. I was made aware of the Board’s dissatisfaction with the President’s progress on certain goals in group meetings that included the President and others and I worked very hard and consistently on her behalf to close that gap. We all want what is best for the students, patients and others this great University serves.”
The campaign to remove Sullivan began around October, the sources said. The Dragas group coalesced around a consensus that Sullivan was moving too slowly. Besides broad philosophical differences, they had at least one specific quibble: They felt Sullivan lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.
Sullivan’s position was clear. In a cordial Q and A posted to a U-Va. news site in March, Sullivan was asked whether there was “room to reduce spending.” Her reply: “[I]n terms of big areas where there are obvious cost savings, I don’t think we have those. . . . ” The university was already “pretty lean,” she said. “I worry about getting very much leaner.’’
Supporters say Sullivan was a consummate public university president who understood finance as well as anyone on campus.
“Terry is the farthest thing from a fuzzy-headed academic,” said Austin Ligon, a former U-Va. board member. “She mastered the way public higher education finance worked, and that was one of the strengths that led us to hire her.”
Sullivan enacted a plan last year to give academic deans both more control and more accountability for budget decisions. She strengthened the top academic position of provost.
And in a frank 12-page strategic memo last month, Sullivan laid out the university’s fundamental academic weakness. U-Va. has a peerless reputation for undergraduate study, she wrote, but its graduate programs and research endeavors suffer from a “reputation gap.” Some vaunted doctoral programs don’t actually rank very high, and others are buoyed by a few star faculty.
Last month, the board adopted an operating budget that included substantial language culled from Sullivan’s strategy document, although most did not know it came from her memo. Yet, after Sullivan’s ouster, Dragas chided the president for lacking a “credible statement of strategic direction.”
Dragas, Kington and a third board member gave Sullivan a performance evaluation in November. They said her performance was good, but not great. They asked for improvement. They put nothing in writing, according to a source who was briefed on the meeting.
The Washington Post made more than six calls and e-mails to Dragas last week seeking comment. She responded to only a few questions, including one about Sullivan’s evaluation.
“I refer you to board meeting minutes from the fall of last year when the board adopted procedures for presidential review, which were followed,” she 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.”
Behind the scenes, Dragas and Kington quietly built support for removing Sullivan, polling board members individually to attain the necessary 11 votes, a supermajority.
Publicly, all seemed well. At a May 21 meeting, board member Alan Diamonstein, a former Democratic state delegate, praised Sullivan for her recent performance, drawing applause from the full board.
Days later, Sullivan embarked on her first overseas trip for the university. She returned to welcome alumni to campus for a busy reunions weekend.
On June 8, Dragas and Kington walked into Sullivan’s office at Madison Hall. Sullivan had just returned from a day-long retreat with her senior staff. She was surprised the two were on campus but welcomed them in for a chat.
The conversation was brief: They told Sullivan they had 15 votes, more than enough to remove her. They told her they weren’t satisfied with her vision, and that she was moving too slowly. Sullivan was “a good president,” they said, “but not a great president.’’ Sullivan was speechless.
In publicly announcing Sullivan’s resignation June 10, Dragas voiced deep respect for the president. Privately, she told Sullivan and husband Douglas Laycock, a tenured law professor, to leave the presidential home at the end of July, two weeks before her official Aug. 15 departure.
Sullivan has hired Raymond Cotton, a prominent higher-education attorney. Cotton declined to comment for this story.
Sullivan’s ouster has fueled fears of an exodus. David Leblang, chairman of the U-Va. politics department, said Saturday that he has heard from multiple department heads that they are losing faculty. There are concerns, too, about a backlash among donors.
Many have urged Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) to step in. But McDonnell, on a trade mission in Europe, has resisted, saying he doesn’t want to “meddle.’’ Meanwhile, Dragas has spent the week calling public relations specialists seeking advice about how to handle growing concern across the state and country.
The action against Sullivan is unusual in that it unfolded without a vote of the full board, without participation of several campus constituencies and without public evidence of blatant wrongdoing.
But governing boards are authorized to remove university presidents on their own authority. Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, traced the Charlottesville protests to “an academic culture that isn’t accustomed to seeing boards doing anything other than rubber-stamp.”
The board has called a special meeting Monday to name an interim president, weeks ahead of the original schedule, in a bid to calm the campus. Dragas had lined up a candidate, Edward Miller, an ex-officio board member and former chief executive of Johns Hopkins Medicine, before Sullivan’s departure was announced. But now the board is reconsidering that choice.
Sullivan, who has made no public comment since her ouster, has asked to address the board. The board has agreed to hear her comments, provided the meeting happens behind closed doors.