The call summoning Teresa Sullivan arrives at 3:30 p.m. June 18, as she lingers on the edge of the Lawn at the University of Virginia, thousands of supporters massed between her and the Rotunda.
Inside, the university’s board awaits her farewell address.
Her husband and elder son trailing, the outgoing U-Va. president wades through the hordes on the sloping green, her steps slowed by outstretched hands.
“U-V-A! U-V-A!” they chant, the din so thunderous Sullivan can barely make out the shouted greetings.
Stay strong, they tell her. Fight back. We’re behind you.
The noise bleeds through the Rotunda walls and into the chamber of the Board of Visitors, where the woman engineering Sullivan’s ouster, Rector Helen Dragas, presides at a crowded oval table.
Sullivan is fortified by the outpouring. Yet she believes, as she takes a seat opposite Dragas, that her tenure is over.
Now is the moment to answer detractors and proclaim what she stands for. Now is the moment to say farewell.
What Teresa Sullivan fails to understand at that moment is that her revival as U-Va.’s leader has begun.
The 18 days of high-octane drama that enveloped the Charlottesville campus is a story of a raw power play gone awry. There were missteps and miscalculations, not just by Dragas and her allies, but also by Sullivan, who did not anticipate the backlash her ouster would ignite.
This narrative is based on scores of interviews with U-Va. officials, professors, alumni and students, as well as state officials. Most participants spoke for themselves. Sullivan and Dragas, who as rector chairs the governing board, declined to be interviewed but spoke through intermediaries.
At first glance, the showdown was between two pioneers — Sullivan, 62, U-Va.’s first female president, and Dragas, 50, the first female rector — with vastly different styles and approaches to education. If Sullivan, a sociologist, was the embodiment of the deliberative scholar, then Dragas, a real estate developer from Virginia Beach, personified the hard-charging business executive.
But the women came to represent something larger than themselves. They embodied two sides of a debate over the future of public higher education.
In Sullivan, the Dragas camp — which included some powerful alumni and board members — saw a roadblock to the creation of the modern university. They believed that U-Va. needed to accelerate technological innovations and pay more attention to the fiscal bottom line.
In Dragas, the Sullivan forces — deans, professors, and many alumni and students — saw nothing less than an assault on the public university’s role in society. If the board could so easily vanquish Sullivan, they asked, what would stop it from going after, say, the German department?
At risk, they insisted, were values and traditions at the core of a classical education.
That impassioned debate uncoiled during a leadership crisis unlike any in the history of the university. “Palace coup meets grassroots rebellion,” Larry Sabato, a prominent politics professor, tweeted at its peak.
At the beginning, there was an e-mail.
At 9:06 p.m. June 7, a Thursday, Dragas sends Sullivan a message that she and Mark Kington, the board’s vice rector, hoped to meet with the president the next day.
“Are you free sometime after 3 pm?” Dragas writes.
Sullivan attaches no special significance to the request.
As recently as November, 15 months after Sullivan became president, the board had given her a favorable evaluation. In May, the board had applauded at a meeting in which one member praised her leadership.
Everything seemed to be going well.
At 7:01 a.m. Friday, Sullivan responds to Dragas, writing in an e-mail that she would be at a retreat for most of the day but could be in her office by 5 p.m.
“Is there anything you would like me to prepare,” Sullivan writes.
No preparation needed, Dragas responds.
What Sullivan doesn’t know is that Dragas has already begun choreographing the president’s exit. The rector had called Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) earlier that week to say the board was about to force Sullivan’s resignation. Dragas was named to the board in 2008 by McDonnell’s Democratic predecessor, Timothy M. Kaine, and her four-year term was to expire July 1.
At 5 p.m., Sullivan greets Dragas and Kington at her office, offering them cold soft drinks before they sit at a small conference table. Sullivan sits at the head of the table, between the rector and vice rector.
Dragas tells Sullivan that the board is unhappy with her performance and that there are significant problems with her management of the university. Why she has not raised these concerns before is unclear.
Sullivan is a good president, Kington tells her, but not a great one. She is moving too slowly to implement the kinds of changes the board seeks. Dragas cites a move to online education as an example.
The rector tells Sullivan that she needs to resign and presents her with a separation agreement to be signed within 24 hours. Dragas and Kington suggest that she speak with an attorney and her family. They have polled the board, Dragas tells her, and they control 15 of 16 votes.
Sullivan has never faced anything like this in four decades in academia. She remains composed but says little. She is in shock.
At the meeting’s end, she walks across the street to her home, the presidential mansion, and shows the resignation papers to her husband, Douglas Laycock, a U-Va. law professor.
They talk into the night about what to do.
Should she fight? Should she walk away?
What’s best for the university?
Dragas and Kington decamp to the rector’s farm outside Charlottesville. There, at 8 p.m. Friday, June 8, they break the news to Chief Operating Officer Michael Strine and Provost John Simon, whom Sullivan recently hired as her top deputies.
At 10 a.m. Saturday, Dragas and Kington sweep into the president’s personal conference room to meet with a handful of top officials. They tell the group that Sullivan will be stepping down and have them sign confidentiality agreements.
“It’s going to rock the university,” university spokeswoman Carol Wood says.
That afternoon, Sullivan calls Dragas to say she will sign her resignation papers and have the document delivered to her.
At 10 a.m. Sunday, Dragas breaks the news to the university’s deans and vice presidents. At 11:19 a.m., she sends an e-mail to the wider community announcing that the board and Sullivan “today mutually agreed that she will step down as president” in August.
Word spreads quickly.
Gweneth West, a drama professor, is in her car at 1 p.m. when her cellphone rings.
“Terry resigned,” a friend tells her.
“Terry who?” West replies.
The idea that Teresa Sullivan could leave the university is incomprehensible. West rushes to call colleagues. The Faculty Senate’s executive committee calls an emergency meeting at 6 p.m. Professors trade anxious questions.
Why did Sullivan step down? Had she done something wrong? Scandalous? What was meant by “philosophical difference,” the reason Sullivan cited in a news release?
Over the next three days, speculation mushrooms. Campus organizations across the spectrum demand that the board explain the resignation.
“Unfortunately,” the Cavalier Daily student newspaper writes in an editorial, “this decision remains impossible to assess because, thus far, it has been justified in an oblique and opaque manner.”
Dragas remains silent.
In private meetings and telephone conversations, she is working to find Sullivan’s replacement. A candidate she had lined up for the interim presidency, Edward Miller, a medical school administrator, has backed out. But Dragas has identified other candidates and begun preparing Sullivan’s severance package. She divvies up presidential duties between Simon and Strine.
On Tuesday, June 12, Dragas speaks by phone with Carl Zeithaml, dean of U-Va.’s McIntire School of Commerce, who has just stepped off an airplane.
Does he have any suggestions about replacing Sullivan? she asks. Does he want to be the next president? At least on an interim basis?
“No,” Zeithaml answers. But he promises to “do what I can to help the university.”
On Wednesday, Dragas issues a public response to critics, saying the president’s departure came after “extended” deliberations.
The statement does nothing to quell demands for more explanation. Questions are giving way to full-throttled criticism.
To counter the backlash, Dragas e-mails Simon and Strine at 9 a.m. Thursday. She wants a joint statement from them by noon. They must say that the board’s action “is authoritative and resolute” and that the two top deputies “will support the interim and the next president.”
“We need to see some joint leadership out of our team,” she adds.
Later Thursday, they issue the statement she wants. Many on campus take it to mean that Sullivan will not be coming back. Others see it as Dragas propaganda.
That afternoon, the executive committee of the Faculty Senate passes a resolution of no confidence in Dragas and the board.
At 8 p.m., Dragas and Kington hold a conference call with the faculty leaders, including West and law professor George Cohen.
For the first time, Dragas apologizes for how the resignation unfolded. She tells the professors, West recalls, that “it had been done the wrong way.”
The rector then reiterates that Sullivan must go.
On June 17, a muggy Sunday, the full Faculty Senate meets to ratify the no-confidence resolution. Faculty leaders hope the gathering will swell into a pro-Sullivan rally.
They get their wish: 800 people file into an auditorium and overflow rooms.
Simon, the provost, takes the stage. No one knows what he will say. Until now, Simon has passionately defended Sullivan but steered clear of criticizing Dragas.
Today, Simon has had an epiphany. It is Father’s Day, and the provost, dressed in shorts and sneakers, wants to set an example for his children. He says he finds himself at a “defining moment” as he confronts questions about honor and integrity at the university.
“The board actions over the next few days,” he says, “will inform me as to whether the University of Virginia remains the type of institution I’m willing to dedicate my efforts to lead.”
Applause shakes the hall. His declaration is perceived as a threat to resign. Suddenly, the university faces the risk that the faculty might follow Sullivan out the door.
On the same day, major donors are threatening revolt. Some say they might withhold their funds because of the rising turmoil.
Sullivan’s supporters seize the momentum. John “Dubby” Wynne, a former U-Va. rector who led the board that hired Sullivan, telephones her husband, Laycock, that night to ask if she would consider staying.
Wynne, a retired communications executive with connections in Richmond, has been placing dozens of calls daily to board members and others with influence, spreading the message that the board’s decision was far from unanimous and that the group was wrong about Sullivan. Other ex-board members join his effort. Wynne is a mentor to both Sullivan and Dragas, partly responsible for both women attaining their positions. But in this matter, Wynne has chosen a side.
Laycock conveys the message. Sullivan is skeptical. She believes that her departure is in the school’s best interest. But her husband is her closest adviser, and Wynne has won him over.
Sullivan agrees to sleep on it.
Before 9 a.m. Monday, June 18, several cars gather in a Charlottesville parking lot. They belong to Dragas and Faculty Senate leaders, who have staged a ruse to throw off reporters. Dragas, who has hired public relations firm Hill+Knowlton, wants no media stakeout at their meeting.
They climb into two vans and drive 10 minutes to the university’s Republic Plaza, where they meet, by happenstance, inside a crisis-management center.
Cohen, the law professor, asks the first question: “Can you tell us anything you have not stated publicly about what has happened?”
No, Dragas says. It is a personnel matter.
Cohen asks how the rector can cite confidentiality if she is not accusing Sullivan of misconduct. Then he lists faculty demands: Sullivan must be reinstated, and the naming of an interim leader must wait. Dragas and Kington must resign.
The rector smiles and replies that she has heard these points already.
A couple of hours later, the faculty generals rally the troops ahead of a 3 p.m. board meeting to appoint an interim president and hear a statement from Sullivan. A mass e-mail commands, “FILL THE LAWN TODAY!!” By 2 p.m., supporters are gathering. The campus radio station, WTJU-FM, sets up a booth and begins broadcasting live.
Before the meeting, Sullivan signs her resignation settlement, formalizing her departure on Aug. 15. Lawyer Raymond Cotton helped her negotiate it. Reinstatement, at this point, seems a long shot.
Dragas enters the Rotunda through a side door. Addressing the board, she expresses regret, not for the act of forcing Sullivan out, but for the manner of its execution. Dragas finishes her remarks, calls for a closed session and empties the boardroom.
About 3:30 p.m., an aide to Sullivan calls Laycock. The board is ready to see the president.
Sullivan enters the boardroom and sits down. In a measured tone, she reads a statement that takes an implicit swipe at Dragas and Kington.
“Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university,” she says.
The board is silent when she finishes. Heywood Fralin, a Sullivan loyalist, thanks her for her service.
Sullivan walks outside. She has not planned to address the crowd. Her husband tells her she must.
The crowd quiets.
“You do great work here,” Sullivan says. “And I want to thank you for what you do and for making this a great university. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing.”
Sullivan departs, but many supporters remain.
Inside, the board turns to naming a successor. The session quickly moves beyond who should lead the university to defining its mission. Board members speak in turn, and some grow emotional. The boardroom is cold and seems to grow colder as night falls.
The meeting stretches nearly 12 hours. Waiting in a hall outside, Cohen nods off in a chair.
At 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, the board votes 12 to 1 to appoint Zeithaml interim president. Two board members abstain; one is absent.
But the lopsided result conceals a deep division. There appears to be an 8-8 split on the board on the question of whether to keep Sullivan.
At 3 a.m. Tuesday, June 19, Zeithaml takes a call from Dragas. He is in London, where it is 8 a.m. She tells him the interim presidency is his. Zeithaml says he’ll take the job as long as the board “really wants me to do it.” Zeithaml agrees largely because he believes that Sullivan’s exit is irreversible.
That afternoon, Kington, the vice rector, resigns. “I believe that this is the right thing to do,” he tells the governor, “and I hope that it will begin a needed healing process at the university.”
His departure leaves the board with 15 voting members. Suddenly, it appears that Sullivan might have a majority.
“It’s not over,” Cohen tells a reporter.
In a conference call from Sweden, the governor tells reporters that the board has made missteps. “There are absolutely things they should have done differently,” he says.
William Wulf, a prominent computer science professor, announces his resignation. He blames the board for “dumb decisions.”
At 3 p.m., student journalist Krista Pedersen walks over to the Rotunda to collect a stack of documents the university released under public records law. The Cavalier Daily was the first publication to request the documents. Pedersen’s reward: a stack of e-mails written by Dragas and Kington.
The newspaper staff decides to release tidbits on Twitter. The e-mails show Dragas and Kington trading articles and opinion pieces as they mull over Sullivan’s removal.
On May 31, Dragas shared a Wall Street Journal editorial about an “online revolution” in higher education. She made a notation: “why we can’t afford to wait.”
In a June 11 e-mail, Kington pondered whether the university should answer a reporter’s questions, writing, “maybe a modicum of candor is called for.”
The e-mails trigger a torrent of criticism.
By Wednesday morning, June 20, Dragas’s hometown newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot, demands her resignation.
In a news conference that afternoon, Zeithaml, the incoming interim president, acknowledges “that some of you don’t trust me.” He claims “absolutely no intention” of seeking the permanent job. He says he does not support Sullivan’s ouster, and he compliments her “tremendous work.”
He predicts that the interim job will be his for a year.
In Richmond, a frustrated McDonnell has just returned from a nine-day trade mission to Europe. The first order of business: U-Va. He gathers aides for a 7 p.m. meeting. He is ready to jump into the fray. But how? He has insisted repeatedly that he can’t meddle in a university decision.
On Thursday morning, the governor arrives at his office with a plan. He will order the board to resolve the crisis. A subsequent event will help him set a deadline for board action: Just before 5 p.m., the board calls a special session for the following Tuesday to discuss “possible changes” in Sullivan’s contract.
At this point, the vote count is fluid. Six board members have publicly or privately endorsed reinstating Sullivan. Five others are thought to oppose her return, including Dragas. Four votes may be up for grabs.
To shore up her support, Dragas makes a final public appeal: a 10-point outline of challenges facing the university under Sullivan. The rector contends that the school lacks a coherent plan for everything from fundraising to class sizes to faculty pay.
Without one, she writes, the university “will continue to drift in yesterday.”
Her statement fails to quiet critics. Support for Sullivan is snowballing. Ten of the university’s 11 academic deans issue a joint statement Thursday calling for Sullivan’s return. The 11th, Zeithaml, had not been asked to sign because of his awkward situation. He telephones Dragas that evening to tell her that he is suspending his interim presidency until Sullivan’s future is resolved.
“I need to get out of the way here,” he tells her.
On Friday afternoon, McDonnell issues an ultimatum to board members: take charge, or he will fire them all. Period.
On Sunday, June 24, more than 1,500 people gather on the well-trod Lawn to “Rally for Honor.”
Speakers include Kenneth G. Elzinga, an economics professor who joined the faculty in 1967.
“The truth of the matter is all of us regret the forced resignation of Terry Sullivan,’’ he says. “All of us respectfully ask the board to atone for its actions. And all of us, I trust, are prepared to respond with gratitude, forgiveness and renewed enthusiasm.’’
Elzinga’s remarks touch someone who is not in the audience but who would read them later, someone who was once his student: Helen Dragas.
The idea of reinstating Sullivan already has entered the rector’s mind, partly because of the letter from the 10 deans, which convinces her that hey understand her concerns.
To Dragas, it appears that alumni, students and faculty are beginning to understand her drive for urgent changes to ensure that the historic university remains an academic power in the 21st century.
By the end of Sunday, Dragas begins to wonder: Should Terry stay?
Sullivan and her supporters approach the Tuesday meeting with rising confidence. The vote may be lopsided — this time in her favor.
But under what conditions would Sullivan return? Several days earlier, she had stipulated that she would come back if two people resigned: Dragas and Strine. The rector had met repeatedly with the chief operating officer and discussed the president’s performance in the weeks before the crisis hit. Strine said those meetings were part of his job and told his staff he was not involved in the ouster.
By Tuesday, Sullivan has dropped those demands. She has heard that it is likely that McDonnell will reappoint Dragas to the board at the end of the month.
At 1 p.m., Dragas phones Sullivan and offers to walk her from the presidential home to the Rotunda for the climactic board meeting two hours later. They talk for 10 minutes in Sullivan’s home.
They cross University Avenue together, their husbands walking behind them.
Dragas and Sullivan take their seats at opposite sides of the board table.
Fralin, the Sullivan ally, asks for a roll call to rescind the amendment to Sullivan’s contract that spelled out the terms of her resignation. As he speaks, Dragas fidgets with her glasses. Sullivan stares straight ahead, expressionless, hands folded in her lap.
Dragas asks to speak. The moment she begins, Sullivan’s fate is clear.
“It’s time to bring the U-Va. family back together,” she says. “I believe real progress is more possible than ever now. It is unfortunate that we had to have a near-death experience to get here.”
When the ballot comes to Dragas, she votes “an unequivocal yes.” The final tally is unanimous. Cheers erupt on the Lawn.
As the meeting adjourns, Fralin tells his colleagues that Sullivan is heading outside to speak to the crowd. He wants the board to stand behind her.
Sullivan steps up to a lectern, dressed in a bright blue suit with an orange blouse beneath, the school colors. She beseeches the campus community to unite.
As the crowd roars its approval, Sullivan and her supporters celebrate. Dragas stands a few feet behind the president, her lips frozen in a tight smile. After a few moments, the rector turns and vanishes back into the Rotunda.