Inside were the governing board members; their leader, Rector Helen E. Dragas; and a lawyer from the state Attorney General’s office. Waiting outside were officials who typically are allowed to attend closed sessions: U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan, the board secretary and the board’s usual attorney. Two newly appointed special advisers to the board were also not included.
As time passed — much more time than the 75 minutes allotted on the agenda — those outside exchanged nervous glances.
The events of the summer have left many top officials weary of longer-than-expected closed-door meetings, especially those dealing with personnel issues. On June 8, Dragas asked Sullivan to step down, saying that she had the support of 15 of 16 board members. Sullivan agreed to resign, and the lack of explanation incited an angry backlash from faculty, alumni, students and others, many of whom demanded that Sullivan return and Dragas resign. On June 26, Sullivan was reinstated and, since then, she and Dragas have said they are committed to working together.
This week the board is meeting in Richmond for a retreat, its first gathering since the board unanimously voted to void Sullivan’s resignation. This retreat had originally been scheduled for July, with plans for board members to stay at an executive training center at the U-Va. Darden School of Business. Darden became a lightning rod in the controversy, which many saw as a clash between traditional academics and business executives over their differing visions for the future of public higher education. The retreat was bumped to August and moved to Richmond, in hopes that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) could attend. (He did not, but sent the board a letter on Tuesday.)
Several of those waiting here outside the closed doors commented that they were reminded of what happened in Charlottesville on June 18-19. At that time, the board met in a closed session that started in the afternoon of the 18th and stretched until 2:30 a.m. on the 19th as members debated whom they should appoint as an interim president in the midst of the leadership crisis.
After the doors closed here Wednesday at about 4:20 p.m., there were few hints as to what was happening inside. Every now and then, Dragas would open the door and summon someone. The first name she called was “Terry.” Sullivan, whose staff calls her Terry, thought that meant her. But no, Dragas wanted Terry MacTaggart, a governance consultant who earlier that day had led the group through discussions about how they operate.
After about an hour, the group took a break. Many members fled to the restrooms. The two attorneys conversed. The consultant spoke quietly with the president. Dragas and board member George K. Martin, a Richmond attorney, stepped away for a private conversation. At one point, Sullivan and Dragas had a private conversation, as a few reporters watched from a distance. Rumors quietly spread that nothing drastic would occur that night.
At some point, the meeting resumed. Towards the end, Sullivan was invited inside. Everyone outside waited. Suddenly, the sound of applause escaped from the room. Soon, the doors were propped open and everyone was allowed back inside to hear Dragas decree: “And we are adjourned for the day.”
The board members and university officials then packed into cabs and headed to a riverfront seafood restaurant for dinner. The group dined in a glass-walled room perched atop the Boathouse at Rocketts Landing, which provided a stunning view of downtown Richmond as the sun set. Reporters were not allowed to attend.
It’s publicly unknown what was discussed on Wednesday evening, but a university spokeswoman said that Dragas plans to issue a statement on the topic on Thursday morning. The spokeswoman said she had no idea what that statement would say.