BECAUSE THE University of Virginia’s president serves at its discretion, the school’s governing board was within its rights to oust Teresa Sullivan. But the way in which the board blindsided the university community, and its subsequent inadequate explanations, raise questions about the wisdom of the decision. They are also likely to make the search for Ms. Sullivan’s successor difficult: What educator of any stature would want to work for a board seemingly so capricious?
Officials need to be more forthcoming about exactly what happened if they hope to restore public confidence and move the university forward.
The Charlottesville campus has been in an uproar since Sunday, when the Board of Visitors of the public university announced it had asked Ms. Sullivan to resign just two years after she was recruited from the University of Michigan. Ms. Sullivan apparently had no inkling of the board’s dissatisfaction, The Post’s Anita Kumar and Daniel de Vise reported, even though members had discussed her removal privately for months. “Everyone is just shocked,” said George Cohen, chair of the Faculty Senate, which is trying to meet with the board in hopes of getting more information.
A statement released Monday by the head of the board, Rector Helen E. Dragas, mentioned the need for “bold and proactive leadership” and suggested unhappiness with the pace of change: “We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change.” The president’s supporters say the board is naive if it thinks tradition-bound universities turn on a dime: Witness the uproar at Harvard University a decade ago when then-President Lawrence H. Summers tried a bulldozer approach to reforms. Ms. Sullivan, by many accounts, was building a foundation — putting in place a new financial model, establishing her team and gaining the support and confidence of the faculty.
Ms. Dragas did not return our call for comment, so we don’t know what issues were of most concern to the board and why it didn’t broach them with Ms. Sullivan. Clearly, there are financial worries, with shrinking government support and a stalled economy that has hurt fundraising. But the university is hardly unique among either public or private colleges in facing these financial challenges, and Ms. Sullivan seems to have been focused on the issue.
We understand the need for confidentiality in some personnel decisions, but there is no suggestion here of any issues that require secrecy. Just two years ago, Ms. Sullivan was the board’s unanimous choice for president; what happened? For a public university, that question demands a public answer. By addressing it, the board can help to ensure that it doesn’t make another misjudgment in picking the next president.