Leadership & Governance

UVa Faculty Push for Specifics on Rift Between Sullivan and Board

Stephen St. John, National Geographic, Getty Images

The U. of Virginia has had only eight presidents since it was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819. Faculty leaders want to know why the institution's board and current president, Teresa A. Sullivan, came to a parting of ways only two years into her term.
June 11, 2012

Teresa A. Sullivan's unexpected resignation as president of the University of Virginia continued to send shock waves through the institution Monday, as faculty, students and alumni questioned what could be at the heart of the divisions between her and the Board of Visitors.

In a statement released Monday, the executive council of the Faculty Senate expressed shock and dismay at the news, which the board characterized as a mutually agreed upon decision with Ms. Sullivan. The council took particular issue with the board's stated justification, which its members described as short on specifics.

"We find the board's statement inadequate and unsatisfactory," the council wrote. "We understand that the university, like most of its peer institutions, faces tremendous challenges. We believe President Sullivan made meaningful progress toward meeting these challenges, and put in place strategies and personnel to move the university forward."

George M. Cohen, chair of the Faculty Senate and a member of the council, said it is critical that professors learn more about how the board's vision for the university differs so dramatically from that of Ms. Sullivan.

"The Senate wants to hear a stronger statement of what really led up to this decision," he said. "You're talking about someone who has just been appointed two years earlier who we thought was moving the university in the right direction."

To piece together the board's rationale, faculty have been parsing a transcript of remarks that Helen Dragas, rector of the board, made to Virginia's vice presidents and deans on Sunday. Ms. Dragas described a gloomy fiscal outlook for the university, and suggested that the president needed to move at a "much faster pace" in the reallocation of scarce resources.

Ms. Dragas and Ms. Sullivan did not respond to interview requests made through Virginia's public affairs office.

John T. Casteen III, Ms. Sullivan's predecessor, said Monday that he was still hopeful Ms. Sullivan and the board could work together. He conceded, though, that any fence mending would be difficult at this point.

"In the best of all worlds, I'd like to see them find a way to reconcile their differences. I don't know what their differences are," said Mr. Casteen, who was president of the university for 20 years.

The board has said it will move quickly to name an interim president, and begin a presidential search this summer. While faculty members have focused their energies on learning more about the nature of the board's dissatisfaction with Ms. Sullivan, there has been no shortage of speculation among alumni about who will become the ninth president of the university, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819.

Shortly after the board's announcement, several alumni took to the university's Facebook page to promote the potential candidacy of Edward L. Ayers, a popular former dean of arts and sciences at Virginia and a noted Civil War historian, who became president of the University of Richmond in 2007. Mr. Ayers' supporters, many of whom are his former students and considered Mr. Ayers the heir apparent to Mr. Casteen, found it bittersweet that Mr. Casteen announced his intention to resign just two years after Mr. Ayers left for Richmond.

Mr. Ayers declined to comment on speculation about his potential interest in Virginia's presidency.

Questions About Timing

Ms. Sullivan's abrupt resignation, which is effective August 15, comes at a time when many faculty say she was just hitting her stride. Last year, she made two high-profile hires. In May of 2011, Michael Strine, then vice president for finance, chief financial officer and treasurer at the Johns Hopkins University, was named Virginia's executive vice president and chief operating officer. Three months later, John D. Simon, Duke University's vice provost for academic affairs, accepted a position as Virginia's executive vice president and provost.

"It's a very concerning thing," said Mr. Cohen, a law professor. "She just got her team together and then she's out. Where is that coming from? There hasn't been any chance for the three of them to come together."

Mr. Simon declined an interview request, and Mr. Strine did not respond to an e-mail from The Chronicle.

David Leblang, a professor of governance and chair of the department of politics at Virginia, said he was troubled that Ms. Sullivan was given so little time to put changes into effect with the backing of the team she had assembled.

"I don't know how you give somebody less than a year to try to turn an institution as large as Virginia in a different direction," he said.

Mr. Leblang said he was perplexed by the board's rationale, but was joining his colleagues in an effort to interpret the rector's public remarks. Many have focused on Ms. Dragas' specific reference to the transformative potential that online learning may have for higher education, as well as her insistence that tough financial decisions need to be made.

"If the faculty believe the Board of Visitors is going to begin micromanaging in terms of distance learning and what departments are cut, without consultation, that's when you'll see an exodus of faculty from the institution," Mr. Leblang said.

Mr. Leblang was particularly critical of what he described as a total lack of consultation from the board with faculty about a decision to force out a president whose vision seems rather closely aligned with that of professors.

"When you're hiring and firing a leader, one would expect you want consultation among the people who are being led," he said. "This isn't the inmates running the asylum. It's simply consultation."