Kirk traced leadership problems back to 2009, saying the university’s search for a new president did not net the best result. Kirk was not on the search committee, but he said that he was told the committee varied in its support for Sullivan, who was then provost at the University of Michigan. Sullivan was the only person the committee recommended to the full board, which then voted unanimously to hire her.
“There was an attitude of, ‘Here’s someone who is pretty good and will do for a while,’ ” Kirk said in a telephone interview from his home in Florida. “Teresa Sullivan was sold to this board as an interim. . . . The fact that she was presented to us in this way, we didn’t really engage with her and share what we expected.”
One person who served on the board with Kirk agreed that Sullivan was not seen as a long-term president, while seven former and current board members said Kirk’s account was wrong. Many who were on the board during the June controversy did not return phone calls or e-mail messages requesting comment. Board Rector Helen Dragas did not respond directly to Kirk’s assertions about the hiring of Sullivan.
Kirk’s account is one of the few public explanations from a member of the governing board about what triggered the unprecedented turmoil. Many in the U-Va. community — and across higher education — continue to ask for more explanation, but Kirk’s version is likely to raise as many questions as it answers. Kirk was an ally of Dragas, who led the effort to oust Sullivan.
Sullivan declined to comment, but the university released a statement Monday that said “the crisis of the summer was very difficult” and “took a toll” on the university community, but since Sullivan’s reinstatement “everyone has been working hard to restore trust” and move U-Va. forward as a leader in higher education.
“There is much good will and commitment to focusing our collective energies on critical issues,” the statement said. “The only way to foster trust in these efforts is to embrace partnership.”
Timothy B. Robertson, one of the three board members who called the special meeting at which Sullivan was reinstated, declined to speak about confidential board matters but reaffirmed his support for Sullivan: “We believed and still believe that she was absolutely the right person to be the president of the University of Virginia at this time.”
Several former board members who were part of the board that hired Sullivan rejected the idea that she was anything less than the full-fledged leader U-Va. needed.