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.”