U-Va. board reinstates Sullivan as president

June 26, 2012

The University of Virginia governing board voted unanimously Tuesday to reinstate Teresa Sullivan as president, more than two weeks after board leaders had forced her to resign and unleashed a storm of campus upheaval.

The two women at the center of the conflict, Sullivan and the board leader, Rector Helen E. Dragas, walked into the historic Rotunda in tandem for the meeting, a gesture of unity after a fortnight of division at Virginia’s public flagship university.

“We have both come to the conclusion that it’s time to bring the U-Va. family back together,” Dragas told the Board of Visitors. It was a startling reversal for a board leader who had been steadfast in her insistence that Sullivan was moving too slowly to address fiscal and academic challenges.

The board, pilloried for the ouster Dragas engineered in a campaign of secrecy and exclusion, reversed course in a brisk half-hour session open to the public.

After the vote, Sullivan stepped outside to deafening applause. She told the crowd that everyone involved — including Dragas — had the best interests of the university in mind.

“This is not a sign of weakness on their part, but a sign of strength and deliberation and a good example to each of us,” Sullivan said.

But the episode may leave lasting collateral damage. Thomas Jefferson’s university has lost wealthy donors, one Board of Visitors member and at least one star professor, computer scientist William Wulf, during the leadership crisis.

The board’s unanimous vote hid lingering rifts on the 15-member panel. It seemed improbable that U-Va. leaders had resolved their differences in a single day. There may be battles ahead over strategic plans, online education, budget cuts and other matters. Also unclear is whether Dragas will stay on the board. Her term ends Sunday, but she is eligible for reappointment, a question that faces Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

The vote to undo the resignation Dragas extracted from Sullivan on June 10 completed a cycle of events that plunged the university into chaos, with 16 days of protests, no-confidence votes and talk of mass faculty defections. The conflict set much of the U-Va. community at odds with the governing board.

Dragas met with Sullivan before the vote and had what the rector called a “good conversation.” Dragas added: “We have always respected each other on a personal level and still do.”

When Dragas announced that she would support reinstatement, cheers erupted on the Lawn outside.

‘Near-death experience’

Sullivan was not scheduled to attend, and her chair had been removed from the board table. At the last minute, it was added back, and she walked into the room with Dragas.

It was a moment rich in symbolism for a conflict that had pitted the university’s first female rector, a 50-year-old Virginia Beach developer, against its first female president, a 62-year-old sociologist.

Dragas tried to put the best face on the controversy.

“I believe real progress is more possible than ever now,” she said. “It is unfortunate that we had to have a near-death experience to get here.”

Thousands of Sullivan supporters, including much of the university faculty, have demanded that Dragas step down. Sullivan initially agreed to stay only if Dragas left, according to people familiar with the negotiations, but the president softened her position.

Public university presidents frequently clash with governing boards. Sullivan’s removal was unusual in that board members appear to have acted alone — and against a president with unusually broad support among faculty, alumni, state leaders and students.

The move against Sullivan cast Dragas in the role of arguing that her alma mater had fallen into decline. Dragas portrayed a U-Va. facing an “existential threat” from the combined effects of state disinvestment, stagnant professor pay and rising costs.

Last week, Dragas published a 10-point critique of Sullivan’s two-year tenure, asserting that the former University of Michigan provost had no concrete plan to move the university forward in such key areas as fundraising and faculty pay.

But many detractors contend that Dragas never built a credible case. In the end, the dispute came down to what was described as a “philosophical difference.” Sullivan sought to bring change from the ground up, through a process of building consensus and empowering individual academic units. Dragas and her allies thought Sullivan was moving too slowly in an economic climate that demanded swift action.

Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington plotted Sullivan’s removal over several months with a small group of collaborators, according to e-mailed correspondence and people familiar with their dealings. They met with Sullivan on June 8 and told her that they had enough board votes to remove her. Sullivan’s resignation was announced two days later.

Serious talk of reinstatement began a week later, when Kington resigned in a gesture of conciliation, exposing internal rifts on the board. His departure left a thin majority who favored Sullivan’s return. By Tuesday, the anti-Sullivan faction agreed to support her return.

Dragas called Sullivan at 2 p.m. and reached the president in her car. She offered to walk Sullivan from the presidential home, Carr’s Hill, across the street to the Rotunda.

Dragas did not tell Sullivan that she would support her reinstatement, according to a person briefed on their talk. Sullivan allies were said to be surprised at the unanimous vote.

In Richmond, where the reinstatement had been the goal of a strenuous lobbying campaign, there was relief at the resolution.

“It’s an amazing end to an amazing two weeks,” said House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville).

McDonnell congratulated Sullivan.

“The past few weeks have not been easy for the university, and all those who love it,” the governor said in a statement. “There has been too little transparency; too much vitriol. Too little discussion; too much blame. . . . The statements made today by board members and President Sullivan were poignant and gracious and set the right tone for collaboration ahead.’’

McDonnell had threatened to remove all 15 board members if they did not resolve the leadership crisis Tuesday.

The governor will be able to reshape the board in coming days, appointing three new members and deciding whether to reappoint two more, including Dragas.

‘Please stand with us now’

Sullivan had a distinct message for each campus constituency as she addressed supporters.

To incoming first-year students, Sullivan said the tumult “should not make you second-guess your decision to come here.”

She implored faculty to “stay here and help us make it even better,” and she asked those who had resigned: “Please reconsider.”

To universities seeking to raid U-Va. talent, she said: “You have to come through [Provost] John Simon and me to do it.”

To alumni: “Please stand with us now. This is your university and it always will be.”

To the board: “Work with me in a spirit of cooperation.”

Sullivan added: “I cannot tell you how humbled I have been. . . . You have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am not alone.”

Then the crowd joined with her and board members to sing a U-Va. standard, “Good Ole Song.”

Kumar reported from Richmond and de Vise from Washington.

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