Leadership & Governance

At U. of Virginia, Old Tensions Seem to Persist

UVa's president, Teresa Sullivan, accused board leaders of 'micromanagement' in a recent e-mail. Now she says too much is being made of such clashes.

Steve Helber, AP Images

Teresa Sullivan, shown at a board meeting after her reinstatement in June, plays down media reports about signs of continuing discord. “There are many good reasons for Virginia to be in the news cycle,” she says. “I’m not one of them.”
March 04, 2013

Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, said on Sunday that "overly much is being made" of her relationship with Helen E. Dragas, the board leader who orchestrated Ms. Sullivan's firing last summer.

Ms. Dragas ultimately joined a unanimous vote to reinstate Ms. Sullivan last June, but perceived tensions between the two women remain the subject of intrigue. In an e-mail published on Friday by The Washington Post, Ms. Sullivan accused Ms. Dragas and members of her evaluation committee of "micromanagement." At issue were 65 goals, 22 of them new, that Ms. Dragas, rector of the Board of Visitors, sent the president in February, the Post reported.

Ms. Sullivan, who was in Washington for the American Council on Education's annual meeting, told The Chronicle that she would not discuss her goals or the exchange because they are a "personnel matter." But the questions Ms. Sullivan will not answer may say something about the state of affairs in Virginia.

When asked if Ms. Dragas had made it more difficult for the president to do her job, Ms. Sullivan said, "I won't go there."

Asked if Ms. Dragas had made her job easier, Ms. Sullivan said, "I won't go there, either."

"There's going to be a little tension," Ms. Sullivan added. "It's natural. It is the way the system was designed."

In the e-mail obtained by the Post, which was dated February 6 and addressed to Ms. Dragas and two other members of the president's evaluation committee, Ms. Sullivan lamented that the 65 goals were impractical and amounted to "micromanagement."

"I am not averse to stretch goals, but I also do not care to be set up to fail," Ms. Sullivan wrote, according to the Post.

The e-mail, which the university maintained was not a public record because it contains personnel information, was published in full on the Post's Web site. Ms. Sullivan said she had not provided the e-mail to the newspaper, and did not know who had done so.

"There's a short list of people who reasonably had access to that," she said.

Ms. Sullivan stressed that the board and president need to be able to have "candid" dialogue, but said she would not seek out the leaker.

Ms. Dragas, who said by e-mail that she was traveling out of the country, did not immediately comment on Sunday night.

Other Presidents' Views

The continuing drama at Virginia loomed large over the American Council on Education conference, where Ms. Sullivan participated in a closed session titled "Moving Forward: Rebuilding Structures, Trust, and Reputation After a Campus Crisis."

In hallway conversations after the session, several college presidents talked about the broader governance issues the Virginia crisis illustrates. Edward J. Ray, president of Oregon State University, said boards need to narrowly focus their goals for presidents so there is no confusion about what is most important.

"If you have 65 priorities, you don't have any priorities," Mr. Ray said.

Ms. Sullivan faces some real challenges at Virginia, but she is up to the task, Mr. Ray added.

"Terry strikes me as a strong, capable person," he said. "My money is on her."

Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said he was "concerned" that "issues are not fully resolved with the board and the president" at Virginia.

"You don't want your president dealing with 65 strategic objectives," he said.

John D. Welty, president of California State University at Fresno, would share only general observations about Virginia.

"Boards across the country are concerned about higher education," he said. "There is also a tendency to look for quick solutions."

Asked whether 65 goals were too many for a college president, Mr. Welty laughed and said, "I don't know."

He then ducked into an elevator.

As for Ms. Sullivan, she said it was unfortunate to be back in the news during a national conference with her higher-education colleagues.

"There are many good reasons for Virginia to be in the news cycle," she said. "I'm not one of them."