Helen E. Dragas, who orchestrated the ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan in June 2012, creating a leadership crisis without parallel at the public flagship, left the governing board last week after her second four-year term came to an end.
Though Dragas backtracked on Sullivan’s removal after students, faculty, alumni and others rose up in protest, her name will be forever linked to the leadership drama, in which she was pilloried for maneuvering behind the scenes to depose the popular president without public notice. Dragas ultimately joined in a unanimous vote to reinstate Sullivan 18 days after soliciting her resignation.
At the time, Dragas led the university’s Board of Visitors and held the title of rector. She contended that Sullivan was not moving swiftly enough to establish a strategic plan for the university during an era of national upheaval in the financing and delivery of higher education. Sullivan’s backers denounced Dragas for what they saw as a misguided “palace coup” that threatened the traditions of a great public institution.
The tumult at U-Va. that month — spotlighting the rector, president, provost, deans, faculty, board members and numerous other figures at the university Thomas Jefferson founded in 1819 — captivated the world of higher education and became known as a textbook case of governing board dysfunction.
“People still have lots of unanswered questions about what happened,” George Cohen, a law professor who led the Faculty Senate at the time, said Wednesday. “I don’t think anyone has been really satisfied with the explanations of what happened and why. That remains really a subject of controversy and uncertainty.”
A former board member and ally of Dragas, Randal J. Kirk, contended in late 2012 that Sullivan was seen as an “interim” president when she was hired in 2010 and therefore did not have a deep base of support on the board before the crisis. Several who served on the board with Kirk said he was wrong.
In subsequent years, Dragas carved a niche as a vocal critic of tuition increases at the public flagship in Charlottesville, arguing that costs have pushed the school out of reach for many Virginians. In-state tuition and fees for new students this fall will total about $15,700, up 20 percent since fall 2014. University officials said the price increase helped boost financial aid for students in need.
“I’m glad I stayed on the board as it gave me an even greater understanding of the importance — and the challenges — of keeping our public universities excellent and affordable,” Dragas said Tuesday in an email. “While 2012 taught me valuable lessons about making public decisions in public, I’m alarmed that even as the university grows ever more wealthy, it suffers from a serious lack of transparency and lags on affordability.”
Dragas contended in an opinion piece published Wednesday on The Post’s higher education blog, Grade Point, that U-Va. is “slowly being privatized” and that the state government should take steps to strengthen public accountability of the institution.
Sullivan declined to comment on Dragas’s leaving the board. A sociologist who previously was provost at University of Michigan, Sullivan became president of U-Va. in 2010. The board gave her a two-year contract extension last year, keeping her in office through July 2018. With more than 23,000 students, the university will mark the bicentennial of its founding the following year.
“As the University of Virginia embarks on its third century, we remain deeply committed to our mission as a public institution in service to the commonwealth and the nation, and to providing an affordable, accessible and world-class education to all of its students,” university spokesman Anthony P. de Bruyn said. “The university wishes to thank Helen for her eight years of service as a member of the Board of Visitors and wishes her well in the future.”
Dragas, 54, of Virginia Beach, is chief executive of a home building company in the Hampton Roads area. She holds two U-Va. degrees: a bachelor’s in economics and foreign affairs (1984), and a master’s in business administration (1988). She also has a daughter enrolled at U-Va.
In 2008, then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) named Dragas to the board. Many critics demanded that she quit after her botched attempt to remove Sullivan. But then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) reappointed Dragas at the conclusion of the leadership crisis.
Dragas made U-Va. history in July 2011, when she became the first woman to serve as university rector. In that role for two years, Dragas chaired the Board of Visitors. Among others who have served as rector at U-Va. were two U.S. presidents, Jefferson and James Madison.
Asked what she plans to do next, Dragas said she will continue to aid efforts to provide stable housing and services for homeless children in the Hampton Roads area. She added: “I plan to join others in efforts to make public higher education more responsive to society’s needs.”
This story has been updated.