University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan announced Friday that she will step down when her contract ends in summer 2018, a transition that she had telegraphed nearly two years ago amid one of the most tumultuous leadership tenures in the state flagship’s modern history.
Sullivan, 67, a sociologist, has served as U-Va.’ s eighth president since 2010. The first woman to hold the position, she survived an attempt by governing board leaders to oust her in 2012 and became something of a celebrity in higher education.
In ensuing years, Sullivan has steered the university through a series of difficult episodes, including the disappearance and murder of sophomore Hannah Graham and the November 2014 publication of an article in Rolling Stone magazine that accused the university of indifference to a gang rape allegation. That article, which caused a national uproar, was later retracted after the account of rape that was at the heart of the story crumbled under scrutiny.
Sullivan also had to deal with a federal investigation of U-Va.’s record on handling sexual violence. In September 2015, the federal government found that the university had violated the civil rights law Title IX in multiple instances related to sexual assault. It later emerged that Sullivan and other officials had waged a fierce — and successful — behind-the-scenes effort to have the federal government withdraw an initial letter of findings that was even more scathing than the one that ultimately became public.
In her letter to the university community on Friday, Sullivan emphasized that the university remains in an enviable position. It has a sterling academic reputation as one of the premier public flagships in the nation, and it has extensive financial resources. Last year, it used cash reserves of more than $2 billion — separate from its $6 billion endowment — to create a “strategic investment fund” to seed new academic initiatives. The move was controversial in some quarters because U-Va. also has raised in-state tuition substantially in recent years. But it underscored the university’s formidable depth of resources.
“Given this strength, U-Va. is well positioned for a transition to its ninth president,” Sullivan wrote in the letter. “Because my current contract ends in summer 2018, I have asked the Board of Visitors to prepare for a presidential search. The most effective search will include the viewpoints of U-Va.’s many stakeholders: the Board itself; faculty, students, and staff; deans and vice presidents; alumni, parents, and philanthropists, including supporters of U-Va. athletics; members of the local community; and elected leaders in Richmond and in Washington.
“The search committee should solicit the views of our affiliated foundations, which mobilize so many dedicated volunteers for the university,” she wrote. “Such consultation is best done without an undue sense of urgency.”
Sullivan had indicated in May 2015, when she last received a contract extension, that she expected a transition to occur and that the board would soon need to prepare for a search. Friday afternoon’s announcement — made quietly as the nation was focused on the inauguration of President Trump in Washington — essentially confirmed that plan.
In her letter Friday, she said she wants to be able to introduce her successor to the governor and state lawmakers. She also wants to ensure that the university is fully engaged with the celebration of its bicentennial in 2019. U-Va. was famously founded in Charlottesville in 1819 as an “academical village,” a vision conceived by the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson.
Virginia benefits enormously from the 24,000-student university, Sullivan said. Through direct employment and the indirect effects of its enterprises, the university accounts for 52,000 jobs, she said: “Put another way, 1 in every 76 jobs in Virginia can be traced back to U-Va. employment.”
The university completed a $3 billion fundraising campaign in 2013, and Sullivan said its annual receipts through philanthropy totaled $260.2 million in 2016.
U-Va. has a deep base of support in Richmond even though lawmakers perennially seek to have more access for their constituents to an elite university that draws about 31 percent of its undergraduates from out of state.
This week, the university announced plans to add 100 undergraduate slots for Virginians and to create a new set of grants for some in-state students who come from middle-class families. Those grants will be worth up to $2,000 a year, representing a significant discount from annual tuition and fees that now total about $15,700 a year.
Sullivan said in her letter that she intends to remain fully on the job.
“This is not a farewell note,” Sullivan said. “We have unfinished business to do in the months ahead, and with your continued effort and sustained energy we will do that work together. I will be working at full speed for U-Va. until the very last day of my time in office.”