Sullivan attributed her departure to “a philosophical difference of opinion” between herself and U-Va.’s governing board of visitors. It was unclear when the rift began, but its existence surprised the Charlottesville community.
The disagreement may be rooted in money. Helen Dragas, who chairs the board, portrayed an institution facing “an existential threat” from the combined effects of an economic downturn, state disinvestment and looming faculty departures. She faulted Sullivan’s administration for a culture of “incremental, marginal change” and said the institution needs a leader more adaptable to “the realities of the external environment.”
The U-Va. board “feels strongly and overwhelmingly that we need bold and proactive leadership on tackling the difficult issues that we face,” Dragas said, including “hard decisions” on spending. The board presumably concluded Sullivan was not that leader.
Sullivan is widely popular among university faculty and students. Some pressed Sunday for more details than the governing board was willing to provide.
“If there’s a reason to do it, it should be a very serious and substantive reason,” said George Cohen, a law professor who chairs the Faculty Senate. “We have a whole new administrative team. You would have thought that they’d want to give the team, now that it’s together, more of a chance to work together.”
Cohen said Sullivan’s departure came as a “complete surprise.” So did Ann Marie McKenzie, a recent U-Va. graduate and former chairman of the prestigious student-run Honor Committee, which upholds the school’s strict honor code.
“I thought she was an effective leader and had a vision for the university,” McKenzie said. “But apparently the Board of Visitors didn’t like that vision.”
Sullivan could not be reached for comment Sunday, but she released a statement vaguely describing differences with the board.
“Although the board and I have a philosophical difference of opinion, I will always treasure having had the opportunity to work with so many gifted faculty and staff, talented students and loyal alumni,” she said.
Sullivan arrived at U-Va. in the summer of 2010 with one of the most illustrious résumés in public higher education. She spent four years as provost at the University of Michigan, an elite state flagship in the same academic tier as Virginia. She had worked previously as executive vice chancellor of the University of Texas system.