Teresa A. Sullivan’s announcement Friday that she will step down as leader of the University of Virginia brings to a denouement one of higher education’s most turbulent and closely-watched presidencies.
Ms. Sullivan has been in office for seven years, and her tenure can be read as a laundry list of the sternest challenges buffeting college leaders during that time — the push to embrace online courses, the increasingly corporate mind-set of boards, concerns over the racial climate on and around campuses, and the fight over how best to prevent campus sexual assault.
In a written statement asking the university’s governing board to start the process of determining her successor, Ms. Sullivan did not provide a precise reason for her pending departure, but she noted that her current contract expires in 2018. Anthony P. de Bruyn, a spokesman for the university, did not elaborate on her decision, but said Ms. Sullivan had "told the Board when she was hired that she would serve seven to 10 years." The rector of the Board of Visitors declined an interview request.
In the summer of 2012 it seemed unlikely that Ms. Sullivan, UVa’s first female president, would be in position to write such a note more than four years later. She abruptly resigned that June, citing a "philosophical difference of opinion" with the university’s Board of Visitors, whose rector, Helen E. Dragas, had led a campaign to oust her. Two tumultuous weeks later, after faculty, students, and alumni rallied to Ms. Sullivan’s defense, the board took the unusual step of reinstating her as president.
Her removal and comeback captured national attention beyond the realm of academe, mostly because of UVa’s prestige and history. But college professors, administrators, and governance experts paid particularly close attention to the president’s unceremonious ouster, which functioned as a cautionary tale of board overreach.
In a scathing report, an investigative panel of the American Association of University Professors said that the board’s actions demonstrated a "failure of judgment and, alas, of common sense." The full board never met to vote on Ms. Sullivan’s forced resignation, and its leaders gave precious few details about their rationale for wanting a popular president gone.
Larry G. Gerber, who was chairman of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance at the time of the report, said that the Virginia case highlights the folly of boards acting without consideration for bedrock principles of shared governance.
"The final authority is in the board; that’s indisputable," Mr. Gerber said. "But the board is not supposed to act unilaterally without appropriate input, especially from faculty and other constituencies."
What was most astonishing about Ms. Sullivan’s ordeal was how it ended. Longtime observers of higher education say that they are hard-pressed to recall an occasion when a board reversed a presidential ouster, as happened at UVa.
‘Action’ vs. ‘Incrementalism’
At the heart of Ms. Sullivan’s dispute with the board’s leadership was a disagreement about the necessary pace of change at Virginia. Ms. Dragas, the architect of the failed coup, positioned herself as a change agent who had grown impatient with Ms. Sullivan’s cautious and methodical approach. (Ms. Dragas left the governing board in 2016.)
Like many board members throughout the country at the time, Ms. Dragas was intrigued by the promise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and fearful of Virginia being left behind as other prestigious institutions moved to embrace the courses. But Ms. Sullivan took the long view, proudly wearing the badge of an "incrementalist."
"Sweeping action may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership," the president said at the time, "but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear."
The faceoff between the rector and president played out in Shakespearean fashion, pitting an old-school academic against a business-minded board leader. As pure drama, it was fascinating to watch. But it functioned also as a leadership seminar, highlighting the challenges that both presidents and boards face in adapting to a more-competitive and faster-paced higher-education landscape.
Mark G. Yudof, president emeritus of the University of California system, said that Ms. Sullivan appeared to strike a balance in promoting innovation while preserving the core of a prestigious public institution.
"There is always someone who comes in and says, I know business and the future is MOOCs or this or that, and they jump on a bandwagon," said Mr. Yudof, who was chancellor of the University of Texas system when Ms. Sullivan was executive vice chancellor for academic affairs there. "The job of president is to stand up and say, This may be a fad. Let’s try some things and see how they work and not take a distinguished institution like Virginia and overnight turn it inside out and make it like a corporation."
There is a difference, Mr. Yudof continued, between modernizing a university and swiftly changing its fundamental character.
"If you have a vacuum-tube department" — one that is far behind the times, that is — "you need to do something about it," he said. "But to have a whole new ethos doesn’t work for a university."
Mr. Yudof, who endured his own share of criticism during his years in office at California, said that Ms. Sullivan’s turbulent tenure mirrors those of many college presidents today.
"It’s par for the course for major universities around the country. I don’t know if it’s worse at the University of Virginia," he said. "I don’t know whether her ride was rougher than anyone else’s."
"We have campuses which are lively and they’re big," he continued, "and anything that can happen, unfortunately, will happen."
Mr. Yudof’s observation held true at UVa, where a series of student-safety incidents repeatedly put the institution in the national spotlight. Fortune magazine referred to Ms. Sullivan as "the unluckiest president in America" in 2015, after a year in which a second-year student disappeared and was eventually found murdered, a black student was bloodied by white alcohol-enforcement agents in an off-campus arrest, and Rolling Stone magazine published a now-infamous and discredited article about a gang rape at a fraternity on campus.
The Rolling Stone article, which was later retracted, was another crisis point for UVa — and for Ms. Sullivan. After taking heat for her initial reluctance to show strong emotion about what some students were calling a "rape culture" on campus, the president suspended all social activities at fraternities and sororities. That prompted critics, including national fraternity groups and conservative commentators, to complain that she had overreacted without having all the facts.
Others said she didn’t go far enough. John D. Foubert, a rape-prevention advocate and professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University, called the suspension "woefully inadequate," coming at the end of the semester, and "merely a PR move."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights made UVa one of the initial 55 colleges under investigation for its handling of reports of sexual violence in a wave of federal enforcement actions announced in 2014.
A settlement between the agency and the university was announced in September 2015. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showed intense wrangling in the run-up to the agreement, as university officials steadily lobbied the department to soften findings that UVa had a sexually hostile environment. Ms. Sullivan pleaded for the agency to break protocol by sharing its letter of findings with campus officials before an agreement was reached; she eventually won significant revisions to those findings. (The Office for Civil Rights opened a second investigation of claims of sexual violence at the university this summer.)
Ms. Sullivan had "one of the most challenging and controversy-filled presidencies in recent memory," said Peter F. Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University.
"I think one critical legacy from her tenure will be that modern college presidents must have great dexterity in managing narratives, and responses to narratives, alongside leading actual responses to critical incidents," he wrote in an email.
"The court of public opinion is impatient — and sometimes distorted in its perceptions — placing a pressure on modern presidents to act, act quickly, and act in response to narratives even if those narratives are more compelling than verifiable."
Being cautious to avoid making the wrong decision can turn out to be just as harmful as taking bold action, Mr. Lake added.
In departing, Ms. Sullivan appears once again to be taking an incrementalist approach. "A smooth transition takes some months to accomplish," she wrote in the announcement of her pending departure, "and if we plan for that transition now, my successor will be in place and well prepared for the Bicentennial of the University’s charter in 2019."
Given the demands of the job — and the often-harsh national spotlight that has shone on UVa — allowing the board ample time to name her successor is the right idea, Mr. Lake said.
Update (January 23, 2017, 8:52 a.m.): This article has been updated to add comment from a University of Virginia spokesman.
Goldie Blumenstyk contributed to this report.
Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at email@example.com.
Brock Read is assistant managing editor for daily news at The Chronicle. He directs a team of editors and reporters who cover policy, research, labor, and academic trends, among other things. Follow him on Twitter @bhread, or drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at email@example.com.