Leadership & Governance

U. of Virginia Board Votes to Reinstate Sullivan

Justin Ide for The Chronicle

President Teresa Sullivan and Rector Helen Dragas enter the rotunda for Tuesday's meeting.
June 26, 2012

Updated, 6/26/2012, 7:20 p.m.

 Teresa A. Sullivan was reinstated as the president of the University of Virginia on Tuesday, completing the arc of an improbable comeback tale that began a little more than two weeks ago with her forced resignation.

The Board of Visitors voted unanimously to restore Ms. Sullivan, the university's first female president, to office. The action reverses her announcement of 16 days earlier, in which she said she would step down, citing an unspecified "philosophical difference of opinion" with the board.

The resignation stunned many people at Virginia and beyond, coming just two years into Ms. Sullivan's tenure at the helm of one of the nation's most elite public universities.

In the tumultuous days that followed, faculty, alumni, and students came to the defense of the president, who won praise for her consensus-building style of leadership. Her self-described "incrementalist" approach to change stood in sharp contrast to urgent transformation that leaders of the board, including Helen E. Dragas, the rector, have said the university needs instead.

The resulting showdown between Ms. Sullivan, a sociologist and longtime provost, and Ms. Dragas, a real-estate developer who graduated from the university's graduate school of business, became a stark example of some of the fiercest debates that have been escalating on campuses across the country about the future of higher education. It pitted M.B.A.'s against Ph.D.'s and stirred passions about whether the strategies of the business world should be widely adopted within the academic enterprise.

Pointed public exchanges—including Ms. Sullivan's 14-page defense of her record and Ms. Dragas's 10-point accounting of "the serious strategic challenges that alarmed us"—grappled with some of the thorniest issues facing higher education. They include how public universities must work to overcome dwindling financial resources and how the nation's top institutions should transform with technology, blending brick-and-mortar education with online, open-course endeavors.

At a university that takes special pride in its rigorous codes of honor, the process by which Ms. Sullivan was pressured to resign sparked some of the greatest outrage. Among the quotes by Thomas Jefferson, the university's founder, most commonly cited by Ms. Sullivan's supporters was this: "It is more honorable to repair a wrong than to persist in it." Tougher criticism came at the beginning of a video circulated in recent days by students and alumni who favored Ms. Sullivan's reinstatement. It opens with this quote by Mr. Jefferson: "All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of conscience to remain silent."

Forces of Change

Ms. Sullivan resigned on June 10 after she received a visit from Ms. Dragas and the board's vice rector, Mark J. Kington, who has since resigned. Without convening a meeting of the full Board of Visitors or publicly detailing their criticism of her leadership, they told Ms. Sullivan that they had the votes to oust her. E-mail exchanges between Ms. Dragas and Mr. Kington, which were later made public by The Cavalier Daily, showed that the two had been plotting Ms. Sullivan's departure for several weeks.

In May, Ms. Dragas sent Mr. Kington a link to a press release from 2005, in which Cornell University's president, Jeffrey S. Lehman, notified the chairman he would step down, "citing differences with the board regarding the strategy for realizing Cornell's long-term vision." A week later, the two exchanged messages about a price quote they received from a consulting company for a "strategic communication project." When Ms. Dragas sent Ms. Sullivan a message on June 7, saying she and Mr. Kington would be in Charlottesville the next day and "would appreciate a meeting with you," the president appeared oblivious to the board members' agenda. She replied to their request and asked, "Is there anything you would like me to prepare?"

Ms. Dragas later apologized for the "pain, anger, and confusion" that had swept the grounds of the university in the wake of her meeting with the president and the announcement of her resignation. But the rector also reiterated the need for a change at the top, saying that, "In my view, we did the right thing, the wrong way."

"Despite the enduring magic of Mr. Jefferson's University," Ms. Dragas wrote, "the bottom line is the days of incremental decision-making in higher education are over, or should be."

'Near-Death Experience'

On Tuesday, Ms. Dragas apologized again for the process that had unfolded. And she changed her position on Ms. Sullivan, voting in favor of reinstating her.

"I believe real progress is more possible than ever now," Ms. Dragas said in the board meeting, which lasted less than half an hour and was largely devoid of emotion. "It is unfortunate that we had to have a near-death experience to get there, but the university should not waste the enormous opportunity at hand."

Before the meeting, the rector said, she and Ms. Sullivan met. "We’ve always respected each other on a personal level, and still do," Ms. Dragas said. She and the president have agreed, she said, to develop a "realistic and measurable road map" to help the university "reach its full potential" and "remain a leader on innovation," particularly in ways that improve the student experience.

"We have both come to the conclusion," the rector said, "that it is time to bring the UVa family back together."

Ms. Sullivan made a short statement to board members after they voted to reinstate her. She said that she wants to be the board’s partner in doing what's best for the university, and that she does not want to sweep their differences under the rug. "I'm grateful to have this renewed opportunity," she said.

During the meeting, another board member, F. Heywood Fralin, also apologized for the "flawed" process. "We've all made mistakes," he said.

Mr. Fralin, who introduced the resolution to reinstate Ms. Sullivan, said that he and the other board members had been aware that Ms. Dragas and Mr. Kington had planned to meet with the president and ask her to step down. But the members did not call one another, he said, to find out if there was  sufficient interest to call a special meeting and discuss the issue more fully. Doing so, he said, "would have avoided this crisis."

While it will never be known whether such a meeting would have led to a different decision regarding Ms. Sullivan's status as president, Mr. Fralin suggested that a robust and vigorous debate would at least have insulated the board from criticism for cloak-and-dagger tactics.

"Our founder encouraged debate, and debate is exactly what this board should have," Mr. Fralin said.

Ms. Dragas also said Tuesday that a full board meeting should have been held. The concession marks a turnaround for the rector, who two weeks ago felt no need to discuss the board's processes. Ms. Dragas's term on the board is set to expire July 1. Virginia's governor has not said whether he will reappoint her.

Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, said the events of the last weeks at Virginia make clear that the board needs to thoroughly review its governance practices.

"The board has to rethink the way it carries out its business," he said. "This has been a governance issue from my point of view, and the board needs to sit down and have a real conversation about how to go about its decisions. That seems the most pressing need."

'Unexpected Safety'

Outside the university's historic rotunda, where the board met Tuesday, hundreds of faculty, alumni,  students, and others gathered in support of Ms. Sullivan. Many wore orange and blue, the university's colors.

A nearby tree was ringed with hundreds of sticks bearing the color photos of faces of alumni who could not be present but wanted to show their support for reinstating Ms. Sullivan.

As the board began to meet, faculty leaders called for 16 minutes of silence among Ms. Sullivan’s supporters, one minute for every day that had passed since her resignation.

Many in the crowd watched the proceedings, which were streamed live online, on their laptops and other devices. Cheers and applause erupted when the board began to vote to reinstate Ms. Sullivan.

George M. Cohen, chair of the Faculty Senate, praised Ms. Sullivan, telling the crowd that the president has embodied—and acted upon—a set of a principles: honesty, candor, openness, inclusion, consultation, communication, fairness, dignity, and trust.

"These are time-honored principles," he said, "and they work."

The president's supporters in the crowd talked about how visible and engaged Ms. Sullivan has been. She attended sporting events and university symphony concerts, they said. One alumnus said the president was like a "favorite aunt." Ms. Sullivan, the woman said, sang in the holiday choir at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and had even contributed recipes to the church cookbook.

After the board meeting, Ms. Sullivan spoke to the crowd. She urged faculty who in recent weeks had considered leaving, or who had already announced their departures, to reconsider and stay. And she beckoned prospective faculty to come join the university.

"We have problems at UVa," she said. "All of higher education does. We’re not in crisis."

She, too, turned to Mr. Jefferson's words, using them to describe the ending of this tumultuous two-week period. Quoting from a letter the former U.S. president sent to James Warren, a general during the Revolutionary War, the university president told the crowd: "It is pleasant for those who have just escaped threatened shipwreck to hail one another when landed in unexpected safety."

Ms. Wilson reported from Charlottesville. Ms. Hebel and Mr. Stripling reported from Washington.