Leadership & Governance

A UVa Board Member Resigns and a Prominent Faculty Member Leaves in Protest of 'Fiasco'

June 19, 2012

The vice rector of the University of Virginia board resigned on Tuesday, saying that he hopes his decision will help begin a "needed healing process" at the university, which has been reeling during the past week-and-a-half over the board's decision to force Teresa A. Sullivan, a president popular with faculty and students, from office.

Leaders of the university's Faculty Senate on Monday had called for the resignation of Mark J. Kington, the vice rector, and of the board's rector, Helen E. Dragas. They had also asked the board to reinstate Ms. Sullivan.

After an 11-hour meeting that lasted into the early hours of Tuesday, the board instead selected an interim president, Carl P. Zeithaml, dean of the university's McIntire School of Commerce, UVa's undergraduate business program.

Mr. Kington sent a three-paragraph letter on Tuesday to Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, informing him that he would be resigning his position on the board immediately. Mr. Kington told the governor he was doing so "to better serve this university which I love and respect, and to help bring about new leadership on the Board of Visitors at this critical time."

"I believe that this is the right thing to do," he wrote, "and I hope that it will begin a needed healing process at the university."

Mr. Kington's term on the Board of Visitors was set to expire in 2014. The term of Ms. Dragas is set to expire on July 1.

Governor McDonnell declined on Tuesday to say whether he plans to reappoint Ms. Dragas to the university board, according to news reports of a conference call with reporters that the governor held from Sweden, where he is traveling. The governor said that he would have liked to have seen the board handle the situation differently, including by communicating more with people in the university community so that there would be a "much clearer understanding" about the reasons for their decision to force Ms. Sullivan's resignation.

But, the governor also said, he believes that the board's members made the decision they felt was in the university's best long-term interests.

'Real and Immediate Consequences'

Meanwhile, a prominent Virginia professor announced on Tuesday that he was resigning because of the board's action.

"I want no part of this ongoing fiasco," wrote William A. Wulf, a computer-science professor who was president of the National Academy of Engineering for more than a decade, in a letter to Mr. Zeithaml, the interim president. Mr. Wulf was one of a handful of people designated as a "university professor," a title given to a small number of the university's most-accomplished faculty.

"I do not wish to be associated with an institution being as badly run as the current UVa," Mr. Wulf wrote in criticizing the Board of Visitors. "A BOV that so poorly understands UVa, and academic culture more generally, is going to make a lot more dumb decisions, so the University is headed for disaster, and I don't want to be any part of that."

He said he will not be teaching the course he was scheduled to teach in the fall, and he urged his fellow faculty to join him. "The BOV needs to understand that there are real and immediate consequences to their actions."

Ms. Sullivan herself warned of the potential for a faculty exodus in a 14-page statement she released on Monday. In it, she defended her presidency and rejected the call for rapid change.

For the institution to keep faculty, she said, professors must believe that they can do their best work at the University of Virginia. "They must believe in the future here," she said. "At any great university, the equilibrium—the pull between the desire to stay and the inducements to leave—is delicate. Rapid change rapidly upsets this delicate equilibrium.

"Already in the last ten days, we have lost faculty to other universities," she continued. "Fortunately, we are well past the usual hiring season in most disciplines. But deans and provosts at every peer institution are setting aside funds now to raid the University of Virginia next year given the current turmoil on campus."