Students found Sullivan accessible and down to earth. Her staff called her “Terry.”
Johnny Vroom, 21, U-Va.’s student body president, said he learned of her impending departure as all students did — via a mass e-mail Sunday morning.
He criticized the board for making decisions “behind closed doors” and not fully explaining what happened. “We all had a very positive outlook on President Sullivan,” Vroom said. “That’s why it was such a shock.”
Sullivan is a sociologist by training, with a doctorate from the University of Chicago and an undergraduate degree from Michigan State University. She has written several books.
She has kept up with her scholarly research, which won her respect with U-Va. faculty. In January, Sullivan taught a two-week sociology class in her conference room, blocking out time in her schedule for office hours and providing students her direct e-mail address.
But Sullivan was viewed as an outsider by many in tradition-
obsessed Charlottesville, and she had no previous experience at the university. Casteen, in contrast, has three U-Va. degrees.
Sullivan wasn’t afraid to confront controversy. The day after Graham Spanier was ousted as Pennsylania State University’s president because of the handling of allegations of child sex abuse by a former assistant football coach, Sullivan spoke at a U-Va. board meeting. An outspoken advocate of transparency, she said universities need to foster a culture in which it is okay to question authority and to flag wrongdoing.
“I also must be willing to accept feedback, positive or negative, if I am to lead effectively, and I must set a tone that says bad news can rise to the top of this organization without any messenger being shot for bearing it,” Sullivan said.
By all accounts, no one expected Sullivan to depart after two years. The premature exit of a president is a major blow to any prestigious public or private university, putting a damper on everything from fundraising to faculty recruitment to Washington lobbying.
“It’s a setback. It certainly isn’t impossible to overcome,” said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. “This is still the University of Virginia.”
Dragas told university leaders Sunday morning that Sullivan and the board had agreed on the president’s departure Saturday.
“We intend to name an interim president expeditiously, and to install him or her before the students arrive back on Grounds,” Dragas said, according to a transcript of her statement.
Perhaps anticipating raised eyebrows, the board chair told the audience of vice presidents and deans, “We know this news is a great shock to the institution.”
Dragas credited Sullivan with engaging across “all parts of the university community” and with raising the university’s profile in Washington and abroad. But faculty and staff pay has “continued to decline” under Sullivan’s leadership, Dragas said, and eminent faculty are retiring.