University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan will step down after only two years leading the public university. (Sabrina Schaeffer/AP)

The surprising news that University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan would be stepping down August 15 after just two years in the position has produced a number of responses from faculty, students and even the general public. The Post reports Monday that UVA faculty senate chair George Cohen was “completely surprised” by the departure and that other campus leaders, such as the student body president, were quick to sing her praise.

Readers of the Post’s coverage of Sullivan’s departure responded with comments ranging from the idea that the university should go private to applause for the Board of Visitors for acting swiftly. But one of the most commonly cited details was her $680,000 salary. “Why, when students are taking out 3 or 4 lifetimes of debt to attend college, does any college president deserve such lavish pay?” asked one reader. Wrote another: “She was not making that type of money to be buddies with students and faculty. The school wants return on that money.”

A particularly high salary, however, does not appear to be a reason for Sullivan’s pending departure. In the transcript of remarks Rector Helen Dragas made to the school’s VPs and Deans, Dragas seems to indicate that the rift occurred over leadership, strategy and fundraising. Sullivan’s leadership was not “bold and proactive” enough, Dagas said, and the school needs “a leader who is able to passionately convey a vision to our community, and effectively obtain gifts and buy-in toward our collective goals.” (Presumably, Sullivan was not that leader.) And while Dagas mentions the continued decline of compensation for faculty and staff, this does not appear to be a remark connected to Sullivan’s pay.

But was Sullivan paid an exceedingly high amount? In relative terms, no. Certainly, she is paid less than many CEOs who run similarly sized private-sector organizations. And while her pay is above average among her peers — the median total compensation for public university chancellors and presidents was $421,395 in 2011, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s recently released pay study — she was not even one of the top 10 compensated chancellors and presidents of public institutions. The president of Ohio State University, E. Gordon Gee, made $1.99 million in 2011, nearly three times Sullivan’s salary. Lee T. Todd Jr., the president of the University of Kentucky, made $972,106 last year. Even her across-the-state peer, Charles W. Steger, the president of Virginia Tech, made $738,603.

Meanwhile, the university she has been leading was among the very top. Even if Sullivan had not been the fundraiser or strategic leader the board was looking for (annual giving, the Post reports, is down from $233 million in fiscal year 2009 to $216 million in fiscal 2011), the university’s academic stature appears to have remained steady. Its annual ranking in US News & World Report still shows it tied for second with UCLA among all public institutions on the “national universities” list, just behind UC-Berkeley. The Post’s story reports that the applicant pool has increased substantially, SAT numbers among incoming students are up, and 96 percent of students (also an increased number) hail from the top tenth of their graduating classes.

Yes, the overall pay scale for university administrators may have gotten out of whack (though they are nothing compared to the same schools’ athletic coaches). And yes, as leaders of such complex institutions, they will need to also be strategic operators, effective fund raisers and visionary thinkers. But their No. 1 allegiance should be to improving academic excellence. Not enough is known about why Sullivan’s tenure was cut short, or what was really behind her and the board’s “philosophical difference of opinion,” but she does appear to have kept those standards high. It seems to me that the broader question over Sullivan’s pay shouldn’t be whether or not she was paid too much, but to what extent the leaders of public universities are really compensated for academic excellence.

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University of Viriginia president steps down

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