The rotunda of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, designed by the university's 1819 founder, former President Thomas Jefferson
"If there's a reason to do it, it should be a very serious and substantive reason. We have a whole new administrative team. You would have thought that they'd want to give the team, now that it's together, more of a chance to work together."
-- University of Virginia law professor and Faculty Senate chair George Cohen, on the sudden ouster of President Terry Sullivan last Sunday
It was just a week ago today that, following a secretly rigged "emergency" meeting of the executive committee of the governing Board of Visitors, a meeting announced only that morning and consisting of the bare minimum of three members, the University of Virginia community learned that President Terry Sullivan, on the job for only two years and apparently highly popular in that community, had agreed to step down as of August 15, as the end product of a putsch organized by the board's head, Rector Helen Dragas, a Virginia Beach devloper.
From the "Remarks of Rector Helen Dragas, meeting with vice presidents and deans" of the University of Virginia on June 10, as released by the university:
We deeply appreciate all that Terry has given to the University over the last two years. We like and respect Terry, and she has done many things well. Her broad engagement with all parts of the University community was refreshing to students, faculty, and staff, parents, and alumni. Her increased presence in Washington and abroad was commendable. Her administration's work with you on the initiation of the internal budget model has been a significant step towards creating an important tool for change. ?
Nevertheless, the Board feels strongly and overwhelmingly that we need bold and proactive leadership on tackling the difficult issues that we face. The pace of change in higher education and in health care has accelerated greatly in the last two years. We have calls internally for resolution of tough financial issues that require hard decisions on resource allocation. The compensation of our valued faculty and staff has continued to decline in real terms, and we acknowledge the tremendous task ahead of making star hires to fill the many spots that will be vacated over the next few years as our eminent faculty members retire in great numbers. These challenges are truly an existential threat to the greatness of UVA.
?We see no bright lights on the financial horizon as we face limits on tuition increases, an environment of declining federal support, state support that will be flat at best, and pressures on health care payors. This means that as an institution, we have to be able to prioritize and reallocate the resources we do have, and that our best avenue for increasing resources will be through passionate articulation of a vision and effective development efforts to support it. We also believe that higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions.?
We want UVA to remain in that top echelon of universities well into the 21st century and beyond. We want this to be a place that lives up to Mr. Jefferson?s founding vision of excellence. We want it to be a place that attracts the best and the brightest in scholarship, teaching, patient care, and community service.
?To achieve these aspirations, the Board feels the need for a bold leader who can help develop, articulate, and implement a concrete and achievable strategic plan to re-elevate the University to its highest potential. We need a leader with a great willingness to adapt the way we deliver our teaching, research, and patient care to the realities of the external environment. We need a leader who is able to passionately convey a vision to our community, and effectively obtain gifts and buy-in towards our collective goals.?
?The Board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation. We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change. The world is simply moving too fast. . . .
"If there's a reason to do it, it should be a very serious and substantive reason," said George Cohen, a law professor who chairs the Faculty Senate. "We have a whole new administrative team. You would have thought that they'd want to give the team, now that it's together, more of a chance to work together." Cohen said Sullivan's departure came as a "complete surprise."
At least three members of the 16-person Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia were not privy to the campaign to remove President Teresa Sullivan and learned of it, as she did, in conversations with the board?s leader late last week.
University Rector Helen E. Dragas said the board had voiced "overwhelming support" to replace Sullivan, who resigned Sunday. A spokesman for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who was not involved in the decision, said he was told it was unanimous.
But some board members who had supported Sullivan knew nothing of the plan to remove her until Dragas notified them late last week, according to former board members and a university official with knowledge of the situation but who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Dragas said the board's concerns with Sullivan's leadership had been the subject of "ongoing dialogue" for "an extended period of time." She declined to comment on this issue Thursday, saying it was a personnel matter.
The move to replace Sullivan after less than two years has thrown the historic campus in Charlottesville into turmoil. On Thursday, the Executive Council of the university's Faculty Senate passed a unanimous resolution voicing lack of confidence in the rector, vice rector and the entire Board of Visitors. The faculty group expressed strong support for Sullivan.
"They have a duty to be more transparent," said former governor James S. Gilmore III (R), who tried to reform the way members of the Boards of Visitors were selected when he was governor. "They have a duty to tell the public what they're doing."
Emergency meetings do not require the same three-day notice as other board meetings. The notice for the Sunday meeting went public around 9 a.m. Sunday.
House Minority Leader David J. Toscano (D-Charlottesville) said he was troubled that the board effectively took action without a meeting, and that Sunday?s meeting involved only three people.
"It just boggles my mind," he said. "You might run a company like that but this is a public institution and a small number of people should not be making a decision."
Besides broad philosophical differences, they had at least one specific quibble: They felt Sullivan lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn?t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.
Sullivan?s position was clear. In a cordial Q and A posted to a U-Va. news site in March, Sullivan was asked whether there was ?room to reduce spending.? Her reply: ?[I]n terms of big areas where there are obvious cost savings, I don?t think we have those. .?.?. ? The university was already ?pretty lean,? she said. ?I worry about getting very much leaner.??
Supporters say Sullivan was a consummate public university president who understood finance as well as anyone on campus.
?Terry is the farthest thing from a fuzzy-headed academic,? said Austin Ligon, a former U-Va. board member. ?She mastered the way public higher education finance worked, and that was one of the strengths that led us to hire her."