Leadership & Governance

Teresa Sullivan Will Step Down as UVa's President After 2 Years in Office

Dan Addison, U. of Virginia

Teresa A. Sullivan took office as president in August 2010.
June 10, 2012

Teresa A. Sullivan will resign as the University of Virginia's president after just two years in office, the university and Ms. Sullivan announced on Sunday. While neither gave a specific reason, both alluded to significant disagreements between Ms. Sullivan and the Board of Visitors about how best to position the historic institution for success in the 21st century.

In a brief statement, Ms. Sullivan, who will resign effective August 15, cited an unspecified "philosophical difference of opinion" with the board. While her hiring as the university's first female president was greeted with much fanfare in 2010, the board expressed an impatience Sunday for institutional transformation that has, by its members' accounts, yet to occur.

Helen Dragas, rector of the board, acknowledged at a meeting with vice presidents and deans on Sunday that "this news is a great shock to the institution," according to a transcript of her remarks.

While she said Ms. Sullivan has "done many things well," Ms. Dragas implied there were clear areas where the board was left wanting. She specifically cited the need for a leader who would be open to changes in curriculum-delivery methods, including online learning. Ms. Dragas also stressed the need to make difficult decisions about reallocating financial resources across the university.

"We wanted it to work as well," Ms. Dragas said of Ms. Sullivan's presidency. "That certainly would have been easier on all of us."

Ms. Dragas's remarks provide a window into the deliberations of a board that sees "no bright lights on the financial horizon" and a pressing need to hire faculty in the wake of an anticipated wave of retirements.

"These challenges are truly an existential threat to the greatness of UVa," Ms. Dragas said.

Ms. Sullivan's short tenure at Virginia strikes a sharp contrast with that of her predecessor, John T. Casteen III, who led the institution for 20 years. Such lengthy tenures are rare for university leaders, and few expected Ms. Sullivan, who was 60 when she was hired, would serve for two decades. With that said, Virginia's board hired Ms. Sullivan with the promise that she was that rare blend of scholar and administrator worthy of taking the reins of a university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819.

Ms. Sullivan came to Virginia from the University of Michigan, where she was provost and executive vice president for academic affairs from 2006 to 2010. She spent most of her career at the University of Texas at Austin, where, over the course of 27 years, she rose to the level of executive vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University of Texas system. A sociologist by training, Ms. Sullivan is considered a leading scholar of labor force demography.

Surprising Decision

Ms. Sullivan's resignation appears to have come as a shock to many, who describe her as an effective leader who has a natural rapport with students. David W. Breneman, a professor in economics of education and public policy at Virginia, said in an e-mail that he and a colleague were both surprised by the news when they heard it together Sunday.

"All indications I had seen or heard were that she was doing a masterful job, was an excellent listener and absorber of information about the university, was deeply committed to the students, faculty and staff, was highly visible, and doing a great job. I simply have no idea what went wrong with the board," wrote Mr. Breneman, who previously served as director of the public-policy program at Virginia's Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, as well as dean of the Curry School of Education.

While the nature of Ms. Sullivan's disagreements with the board remains vague, Ms. Dragas's remarks suggest the board is particularly concerned with how money flows through the institution.

"The board feels strongly and overwhelmingly that we need bold and proactive leadership on tackling the difficult issues that we face," Ms. Dragas said. "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."

Ms. Sullivan recently pushed the university toward a more decentralized budget model that gives deans greater authority and responsibility to allocate money across departments. Often described as "responsibility center management" or "RCM," the model allows individual academic units to retain the revenues they generate.

During a news conference on Sunday, Ms. Dragas declined to answer specific questions about the board's rationale. She and Ms. Sullivan both declined interview requests made through Virginia's public-affairs office.