University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan was hired as an “interim” president and thus was never fully engaged by the historic school’s governing board before her ouster over the summer, according to a new account of events that preceded the leadership crisis in Charlottesville.
In a lengthy interview with The Washington Post, Randal J. Kirk, who recently stepped down from the board, broke the silence that has hung over U-Va’s board since it forced Sullivan out in June and then reinstated her 18 days later.
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.
The search process took more than five months, and search committee members worked with a respected higher-education headhunter, conferred with other university presidents and sought out the brightest lights in higher education, they said.
Sullivan was on the short list.
She was hired by the board in January 2010, given a five-year contract and paid $680,000 a year in salary and other compensation. Former board member L.F. Payne said he recalls Sullivan being presented as “the best person in America to be president of a major university who wasn’t already the president of a major university.”
Austin Ligon, another former board member and search committee member, said: “Terry was our first choice because she was the most qualified candidate.”
Sullivan was 60 when she was hired, so it was not expected that she would lead the university for as long as her predecessor, John Casteen III, who held the position for 20 years.
“Our goal was always five to 10 years with a preference for 10,” Ligon said. “It is absolutely not true that we discussed Terry as a short-term president.”
Daniel R. Abramson, then vice rector and a search committee member, said the goal was “at least 10 years,” adding: “Our discussion was 10 years plus.”
John O. “Dubby” Wynne, the former leader of the board and the search process, declined to comment.
Virginia’s governor appoints board members to four-year terms, and the 16-member board that asked Sullivan to step down in June included only eight people who voted her into the job — including Dragas and Kirk.
Kirk, 58, grew up in Virginia, graduated from Radford University and earned a law degree at U-Va. in 1979. He has started several biotech and pharmaceutical companies and has been identified by business magazines as a self-made billionaire.
He served on U-Va’s governing board since his appointment in 2009 by then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). Though not on the presidential search committee, he was part of the board that voted to hire Sullivan.
Kirk said he found Sullivan’s aspirations for the flagship university lacking and thought that she failed to set priorities and quickly enact change. He said U-Va. should be “a public example of a Harvard or a Stanford.”
Sullivan’s reports to the board were “facile and lame” activity logs, Kirk said, lacking the strategic vision he expected from a “CEO” overseeing a multibillion-dollar education and health-care enterprise.
Kirk said he and other board members grew increasingly frustrated, and this spring decided that Sullivan needed to leave before her five-year contract was up. At least 15 of the 16 board members firmly backed that position, he said.
“All of us felt the university needed a better president,” Kirk said. “That was for sure.”
Other board members, who would not speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the matter, disputed Kirk’s portrayal.
They say they heard no discontent about Sullivan in public meetings or private board sessions — and they did not think she had a flawed presidency. They say they were told of plans to oust Sullivan shortly before it happened and without full and accurate information.
“I just don’t see it that way,” one board member said of Kirk’s account. “And I don’t know how he would know. He wasn’t there half the time.”
Since joining the board, Kirk participated in 11 of 21 meetings, two of which he attended via telephone, according to a university spokeswoman. He missed all four annual retreats. Kirk said he attended all meetings during the crisis in June.
Dragas, in a brief written statement, said she and the vice rector agreed it was best not to elaborate on Kirk’s account: “As I have previously and publicly stated, I believed that the request had the support of 15 of 16 board members who, as far as I knew, made their own independent decisions about how best to proceed.”
Kirk and other board members who spoke with The Post agreed on one thing: The board should have met as a whole before accepting or forcing Sullivan’s resignation.
“Frankly, I was surprised that she resigned. I thought she would say, ‘Can I have a meeting of the board to discuss this?’ ” Kirk said. “We should have met with Terry Sullivan and been more open with her.”
At a meeting on Oct. 19, the board began the process of adding a policy that would require such a meeting.
Kirk was not at that meeting, as he announced his resignation from the board to the governor the day before. Kirk said his resignation had nothing to do with the events of this summer and instead followed his permanent move to Florida, which could disqualify him from serving and made it difficult to attend meetings.
Several former and current board members described Kirk as seemingly unengaged in board responsibilities.
“You don’t agree to be on a board just for the piece of it that is convenient for you,” said Susan Y. “Syd” Dorsey, a Richmond businesswoman who was on the board until last summer. “I don’t know how he would know what the other board members were thinking because he rarely came to a board meeting.”
More recently, Kirk appears to have been in regular e-mail contact with the board’s top two leaders, Dragas and Mark Kington, according to e-mails released by U-Va. after public-record requests.
Three days before Sullivan was asked to step down, Kirk and Dragas exchanged e-mails about a New Yorker magazine story. Kirk wrote: “Well, your leadership is certainly already paying off. And even though we are perhaps not blessed with the best people we possibly could have on the board, I am fairly certain that most of them know that the time in which we could be deferential toward an administration that is mostly bent on the preservation of the status quo is at an end.”
Kirk has continued to stand up for Dragas, who was reappointed to the board this summer despite numerous calls for her resignation. Dragas, he said, was simply holding firm to doing the right thing.
“The press so rapidly fell victim to the idea that there has to be a hero and a victim in every story,” Kirk said. “There is no victim. And there’s only one hero, and that’s Helen Dragas.”
Kirk said that most faculty — who as a group have vocally supported Sullivan — don’t understand the role of the board, rushed to unfair conclusions about what had happened and are now doing “as many victory dances as they can.” He said the faculty acted like Sullivan was a “union employee” who was demanding to know which “violation of the shop rules” had warranted her firing.
“I just disagree with that philosophy,” he said. “Why wasn’t there ever a presumption that you had a board that wanted better? Why didn’t this ever pass anyone’s mind?”
He also added that the wave of faculty, alumni and student support that erupted for Sullivan this summer was unexpected: “Obviously she’s a stronger leader than we initially believed.”