U-Va. board: President Teresa Sullivan’s removal came after ‘extended’ talks over school’s health

Sabrina Schaeffer/AP - University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan, right, applauds as journalist and author Katie Couric returns to her seat after speaking at the University of Virginia commencement exercises Sunday, May 20, 2012, in Charlottesville, Va.

In an effort to quell a crescendo of protest, the governing board of the University of Virginia issued its first public response Wednesday regarding the removal of Teresa Sullivan as president, explaining that it had engaged in an “extended period” of dialogue with her over the university’s health before seeking her resignation.

University Rector Helen E. Dragas addressed her comments to leaders of the Faculty Senate and to other faculty members who had publicly criticized the board for asking Sullivan to resign, noting that the board “understands the serious concern and anxiety” raised by Sullivan’s exit. She acknowledged what appeared “an abrupt turn” of events.

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“Nevertheless, the Board can assure you that there was ongoing dialogue with the President over an extended period of time,” she wrote, about “ensuring the long-term health and well-being of the University through the development of a credible statement of strategic direction and a long-term resource plan.”

But colleagues insist that Sullivan was utterly surprised by her ouster and say that she had shared with the board 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.

Read U-Va. President Sullivan’s academic strategy memo

The Board of Visitors accepted Sullivan’s resignation Sunday after telling her that they had the votes to force her out, according to multiple sources inside and outside the state’s flagship university. The move has triggered an unusual and growing chorus of dissent, including a protest Wednesday by 33 academic leaders and a handful of state lawmakers who have asked the board’s leader to more fully explain the ouster.

“This is the most egregious case I have ever seen of mismanagement by a governing board,” said Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the prestigious Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell. “It’s secretive, it’s misguided and based on the public statements, there’s no clear rationale.”

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 the briefest term of any U-Va. president.

Sullivan’s Academic Strategy memo, obtained by The Washington Post, was written in comparatively candid terms and identified five areas of broad concern.

First, a siloed budgeting model that frustrates innovation and collaboration. Second, a projection that fully half of the U-Va. faculty will depart by 2020, mainly because of retirement. Third, a “reputation gap”: In many academic areas, Sullivan suggests, the university is “reputed to be better than we actually are.” Fourth, the “fragile” Top 10 stature of many university departments and professional schools, driven by a precariously small number of actual academic stars.

Lastly, Sullivan suggested overhauling the curriculum to lavish far more attention on upper-level classes and to convert many lower-level courses to a “hybrid” model, partly delivered online. Her reasoning: Many U-Va. students arrive already having taken many introductory courses as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate-level classes in high school.

Many of Sullivan’s themes are the same ones invoked by Dragas as areas the board claimed she had failed to properly address.

Opposition to Sullivan’s ouster appears to be spreading. Thirty-three department chairs and program directors signed a letter, released Wednesday, that protests her removal and urges the panel to “reopen discussion” with the sidelined leader.

On Monday, the 16-member Executive Council of the university’s Faculty Senate released a statement opposing Sullivan’s removal. Others, including Provost John Simon, former U-Va. president Robert O’Neil and former chief operating officer Leonard Sandridge have spoken in strenuous defense of Sullivan’s abilities.

The new letter, dated June 12 and addressed to the board, comes from faculty leaders representing the university’s academic core unit.

“We believe that this abrupt and, from our point of view, opaque decision will deeply threaten the way UVA is perceived by prospective as well as current faculty, students, and donors,” they wrote. “We strongly urge the Board of Visitors to reopen discussion with President Sullivan and the faculty.”

Many educators at U-Va. contend that there were no signs of organizational weakness at the university or of shortcomings in Sullivan’s leadership.

“Our surprise and concern arise directly from the fact that we have been very pleased with the direction in which President Sullivan and her administrative team have been leading UVA and with her accomplishments thus far,” the faculty leaders wrote. “She is an extraordinary academic leader, with superb administrative abilities, the heart of a faculty member, and evident strength of character.”

They added, “One hears from colleagues elsewhere that Terry Sullivan was widely recognized as a rising star among university presidents. We expect that her positive impact on the University of Virginia will be felt — and will be appreciated by all of us — for years to come.”

Two legislators who represent the Charlottesville area — Sen. R. Creigh Deeds and House Minority Leader David J. Toscano, both Democrats — are waiting for some answers.

“Our constituents are demanding answers,’’ Deeds said. “When you don’t provide answers, it feeds cynicism.”

Toscano said he has been hearing from faculty members for days. He met with Sullivan last Thursday to talk policy and there was no sign of problems. The two made a future appointment for lunch.

“There is a lot of confusion and questions being asked,’’ he said. “The more I hear, the more troubling the story gets.’’

 
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