Leaders of the university’s governing board ousted Sullivan last week largely because of her unwillingness to consider dramatic program cuts in the face of dwindling resources and for her perceived reluctance to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate chief executive.
Sullivan’s resignation after less than two years has prompted an unprecedented backlash on the historic Grounds: a flurry of no-confidence votes and protest letters from groups of faculty, administrators and students; a 2,000-signature petition; and a Facebook protest page with more than 3,000 members. Many want the enormously popular president reinstated.
Nearly everyone at the Charlottesville campus thought Sullivan was off to a promising start. She spent her first year in office installing an estimable team of top administrators and her second year strengthening the university’s academic model, just as she had been tasked by the board that hired her.
But at least one key player did not agree: Helen Dragas, a savvy, fiscally conservative developer from Virginia Beach appointed to the board in 2008 by then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and promoted to rector of the 16-person board last summer. Her misgivings about Sullivan would pit the university’s first female rector against its first female president.
The following account is based on conversations with more than a dozen current and former board members, state and university officials, faculty and others with direct knowledge of the events. Some spoke on the record; others did not, saying they were not authorized to speak. Board members referred inquiries to Dragas, who said she cannot discuss personnel matters.
Dragas had reservations about Sullivan from the start, the sources said. By the time she took the reins as rector, Dragas was becoming convinced that Sullivan would not make the hard spending decisions necessary to keep U-Va. competitive in a volatile higher education marketplace. In conversations before and since the ouster, Dragas has portrayed Sullivan as an adequate day-to-day caretaker but someone incapable of long-term vision.
Dragas laid the groundwork for Sullivan’s removal over several months, working in secret with a small team of collaborators. They included vice rector Mark Kington, a venture capitalist from Alexandria and former business partner to Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), and Peter Kiernan, a New York investor who led the foundation of the university’s business school.
On Friday, Michael Strine, U-Va.’s chief operating officer and one of Sullivan’s top deputies, read a statement at a staff meeting to quell rumors that he, too, was involved in her removal. He acknowledged meeting with members of the governing board and said they posed critical questions about Sullivan. He said he told the board members to take their concerns to Sullivan, according to two people who were there.