CHARLOTTESVILLE — While the leadership limbo continues at the University of Virginia, the verdict from students on the ouster of President Teresa A. Sullivan is clear: They feel angry, bewildered and betrayed.
Hannah Patrick of Front Royal, who just finished her first year at the university, returned here one night last week for a vigil at the invitation of an instructor. She doesn’t know Sullivan personally. She didn’t even know until recently that the university has a governing board that wields so much power. But she quickly gets worked up when talking about what has happened.
“Sorry. I’m usually not this intense on things,” Patrick, 19, said Thursday afternoon at a restaurant just off campus. “It’s just that everything that I respect and value about U-Va. is wrapped up in this. Over and over again, they stress to us honesty and trust. And then this happens.”
Most of the university’s 21,000-plus students have dispersed across the state and the globe for summer break. But they have made their collective frustrations heard here loud and clear. What’s driving them is more than just admiration for a popular president.
News of Sullivan’s ouster, which reached most students via mass e-mail nearly two weeks ago, has prompted strongly worded Facebook posts, chiding tweets, trips back to campus to protest and lobbying campaigns.
A student-led “Rally for Honor” is scheduled for Sunday afternoon on the university’s iconic Lawn.
Why such intensity? Typically, most administrative moves and decisions are so far removed from the day-to-day experience of students that it is difficult for them to register a stance, let alone a care. Even tuition increases are announced without much fanfare or pushback.
Sullivan was highly visible on campus — buzzing around on move-in day in a Smart car, teaching a sociology class and posting videos on YouTube. Still, not many students say they could adequately evaluate her full performance as president, especially her dealings with university finances.
But the actions this month of the governing Board of Visitors don’t square with how decisions are typically made at U-Va., several student leaders said. They say they are not accustomed to being caught off guard by major university changes. This is a school where admissions tour guides rave about the “community of trust,” where students refer to founder Thomas Jefferson as if the third U.S. president were a close friend and where those caught cheating on homework face the judgment of their peers, not administrators.
“It seemed that almost everyone kept going back to this notion that what had unfolded just doesn’t happen at U-Va.,” said Stephen Nash, chairman of the Honor Committee, a 170-year-old student-run judiciary system that upholds the university’s code of honor. All students pledge not to lie, cheat or steal, and the committee holds them to that.
On June 16, the head of the board, Rector Helen E. Dragas, met with a few student leaders to answer questions about the decision. The students pushed Dragas to fully explain Sullivan’s ouster to all students, according to those at the meeting.
“We just urged her to put that information out there,” said Johnny Vroom, the student body president, who participated via phone conference.
Clay Kerchof, who just finished his second year at the university, also urged full transparency.
“Anything less would be a gross abuse of power and indicates dark years ahead for Mr. Jefferson’s University,” Kerchof wrote in an e-mail from China, where he is studying this summer. In late May, Kerchof had lunch in Beijing with Sullivan during her first international trip on behalf of the university.
On Thursday evening, Dragas issued a 10-point statement outlining her specific concerns about the challenges facing the university and arguing that U-Va. needs a new strategic plan. The rector apologized for board missteps but contended that replacing Sullivan was the right move.
It is unclear whether Dragas’s statement will assuage student concerns.
The Honor Committee issued a statement last Sunday that chastised the governing board for creating “an environment that is inconsistent with the value of trust that runs through the very fabric of our University.”
The words “trust,” “integrity,” “honor” and “community” have been used repeatedly as students have tried to pinpoint why this situation has struck a nerve.
At other times when controversy has struck at U-Va. — such as the case of former student George Huguely V, convicted this year of murder in the death of his ex-girlfriend, classmate Yeardley Love — most students and faculty have refused to talk to reporters.
Not this time.
“When there’s one entity that isn’t part of the community of trust, that hurts that community. People begin to talk about it,” Vroom said. “It’s logical to me that there would be such an outcry.”