U. of Virginia's Board Lacked Common Sense, AAUP Says in Scathing Report

The ouster of Teresa Sullivan as president showed a 'failure of judgment' by a board led by a 'headstrong rector'

Sabrina Schaeffer, AP Images

Helen E. Dragas (right), rector of the U. of Virginia's governing board, said the university needed to be ready for the "coming tsunami" of online education. But, the AAUP report says, she "spoke in ignorance, without having informed herself about what was actually going on at the university."
March 14, 2013

By forcing out Teresa A. Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia last summer, the institution's Board of Visitors demonstrated a "failure of judgment and, alas, of common sense," an investigative panel of the American Association of University Professors has concluded.

In a report issued on Thursday, the AAUP faults the board for ignoring its own guidelines for presidential evaluations and for securing Ms. Sullivan's ouster without faculty consultation.

Under pressure from the board's leadership, Ms. Sullivan abruptly resigned last June, only to be rehired two weeks later amid a public outcry.

The ouster of Virginia's president is widely regarded by higher-education experts as a textbook example of poor governance. The full board never met to discuss the matter, much less vote on it. Moreover, the vague reasoning provided for the decision left many flummoxed about how a popular president had proved such a disappointment in the eyes of the board.

The AAUP's report makes recommendations for improving governance at the university but does not suggest that last summer's events leave it vulnerable to sanction by the association.

The report lays out the well-documented history of Ms. Sullivan's resignation, beginning with secret efforts by Helen E. Dragas, the board's rector, to secure support for the president's removal. All but one board member acquiesced. The report does not name the lone objector, but F. Heywood Fralin, a former board member, has apologized for not calling a special meeting that "would have avoided this crisis."

In November 2011 the board adopted guidelines for a system of annual presidential evaluations. But board members never conducted "the kind of intensive evaluation of President Sullivan's overall performance one would have expected them to undertake prior to reaching a decision to remove her from office," the AAUP report says.

The board discussed Ms. Sullivan's performance in executive session on November 11, 2011, according to a public notice. Nonetheless, the president has said she was blindsided by the board's concerns when she was asked to resign seven months later.

Ms. Sullivan now has quarterly evaluations with a broader group of board members, in addition to annual reviews. The board's manual now also requires a meeting with public notice and a vote of the full board before it can take any action related to the president's employment status, including "requested resignation."

Insufficient Knowledge

Throughout the AAUP report, Virginia's board is described as a group imbued with a sweeping sense of its own authority but armed with insufficient knowledge about the inner workings of the institution it is charged with overseeing. The investigators are particularly critical of Ms. Dragas.

The rector has described Virginia as unprepared for the "coming tsunami" of online education, but the investigators question whether she was even in a position to make such a judgment.

"The uniform comment the investigating committee had from administrators and faculty members alike was that Ms. Dragas spoke in ignorance, without having informed herself about what was actually going on at the university," the report states.

Ms. Dragas declined an interview request from The Chronicle but provided a statement to the AAUP, which is reprinted in the report. Ms. Dragas said she would not "correct the multiple errors of fact" in the report because that would simply "rehash past events." The committee's suggestions, which include adding a nonvoting faculty member to the board, will be forwarded to the board's Special Committee on Governance and Engagement for consideration, Ms. Dragas said.

The AAUP's report is drawn from interviews with Ms. Sullivan; John D. Simon, the university's provost; George M. Cohen, chairman of the Faculty Senate; John T. Casteen III, Ms. Sullivan's predecessor as president; and several deans, department chairs, and faculty members.

The Board of Visitors declined to meet with the AAUP investigative committee.

Corporate Influence

Much has been made of whether the board's actions last summer reflected a corporate mentality among its members, especially Ms. Dragas. The AAUP report also explores this notion, concluding that the rector's moves bear the hallmark of an executive in a medium-size enterprise, such as the real-estate firm Ms. Dragas leads in Virginia Beach.

Ms. Dragas's nonspecific call for greater "boldness" at Virginia, the report states, "reflects the mind-set of entrepreneurial control common in small- and medium-sized business enterprises." In businesses such as those, which adjust quickly to changing consumer tastes, managers are often hired or fired on short notice to meet a perceived need.

"This mind-set ill fits the role of trusteeship in the modern university," the report says.

While much of the AAUP report faults the board, the investigators also conclude that the retirement of a single powerful administrator played an intangible role in allowing a rift to grow between the president and the board.

Leonard W. Sandridge, who served the university for more than 40 years, retired on July 1, 2011. In his role as executive vice president and chief operating officer, Mr. Sandridge held great sway over how money moved around the university. But his less-visible role as an intermediary between the board and the president was of particular value, and communication between the two parties suffered in Mr. Sandridge's absence, the report suggests.

In what amounts to a searing indictment of Ms. Dragas, the AAUP investigators cite the absence of "sober counsel," as personified by Mr. Sandridge, as one of many factors that allowed things to go so awry last summer.

"The events of last June might be reasonably explained in this way," the report states. "A headstrong rector, imbued with a belief in 'engaged trusteeship,' strove to remove a president who failed to conform to her image of bold academic captaincy. She did so with single-minded zeal: without informing herself of the essentials in the underlying matters she claimed to give rise to that drive, even without perceiving the relevance of the evaluation process the board had adopted a mere seven months before. In this, she was abetted, first, by the absence of an experienced intermediary to give her and the board sober counsel and, second, by her board's total neglect of its collective responsibility. If this explanation is correct, what happened is, if no less appalling, at least more understandable."