Leadership & Governance

Departing President Defends Her 'Incremental' Approach to Change at U. of Virginia

The Daily Progress/Sabrina Schaeffer

Hundreds of supporters greeted Teresa A. Sullivan, who announced her resignation as president of the U. of Virginia a week ago, as she walked to the Board of Visitors meeting at the Rotunda on Monday.
June 18, 2012

[Updated (6/19/2012, 7:26 a.m.) with news of the appointment of an interim president.]

In her first extensive public statement since she was forced out of the University of Virginia presidency, Teresa A. Sullivan cast herself Monday as an "incrementalist" resistant to "corporate-style, top-down leadership."

Ms. Sullivan broke her silence in a 14-page document, which amounted to a full-throated rejection of a rapid transformation of the institution that she said could be risky and destructive.

Ms. Sullivan's statement, released as she met in private with the Board of Visitors, never mentions the board or its leadership by name, but it leaves little mystery that she felt pressured by some of the board's members to make dramatic cuts that she argues would threaten the diversity of programs at the university and jeopardize its national reputation.

"I have been described as an incrementalist. It is true," wrote Ms. Sullivan, who was president for just two years. "Sweeping action may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership, but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear."

And, she added later in her statement, "being an incrementalist does not mean that I lack vision."

After meeting for hours on Monday, in the afternoon and into the night, the board announced at nearly 4 a.m. on Tuesday that it had named as interim president Carl P. Zeithaml, dean of the university's McIntire School of Commerce, UVa's undergraduate business program.

Ms. Sullivan's statement places her at the center of a national debate about public higher education, which critics of all political stripes describe as insufficiently agile in adapting to a changing financial landscape and slow to answer the call for greater public accountability. Within that very debate, however, there is a significant diversity of opinion about how quickly any real transformation can or should be expected to take place at historic and elite institutions, such as Virginia.

The central disagreement between Ms. Sullivan and the board was not whether change in and of itself was necessary, but rather at what pace and to what degree, she said.

The Board of Visitors has been vague in public statements about the sort of transformation members would hope to see, but The Washington Post has reported efforts by the board to target programs within the German and classics departments.

John T. Casteen III, Ms. Sullivan's predecessor at Virginia, said Monday that the board's actions provide every indication that Virginia students still need to be reading Aristotle and other great thinkers on the subjects of morality and public service.

"Understanding the classics is fundamental to being effective and exercising the public trust," said Mr. Casteen, who was president for 20 years and has maintained relative silence on Ms. Sullivan's ouster until now. "The king drives himself to disaster because he is subject to the whims of hubris."

Helen E. Dragas, the rector of the board and a developer in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area, has come under particular criticism for her reported role in secretly securing support for Ms. Sullivan's ouster. The clandestine nature of discussions about strategy for the institution, and who should lead it, has eroded the trust of alumni, including major donors, Mr. Casteen said.

"It has been uncommonly destructive, startling, sudden," he said. "It undercuts confidence in the university and the board."

Ms. Dragas, who has declined multiple interview requests from The Chronicle, conceded in a statement Monday that the board had invited criticism with its approach.

"We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this university," the statement read. "For that reason, let me state clearly and unequivocally: you—our UVa. family—deserved better from this board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear."

Ms. Dragas also emphasized that the board had not demanded specific program cuts. "And, to set the record straight on an important point," she said, "the Board has never, nor will we ever, direct that particular programs or courses be eliminated or reduced. These matters belong to the faculty."

Yet Ms. Sullivan used her statement Monday to draw distinctions between a collaborative style of decision-making that she says best suits higher education and the recent board deliberations that culminated in her resignation.

"Until the last ten days, the change at UVa has not been disruptive change, and it has not been high-risk change," Ms. Sullivan wrote. "Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work."

'Chewing Gum in Their Hair'

Ms. Dragas expressed regret Monday for the reaction the board's decision has provoked, and Ms. Sullivan assured in her statement that the response on campus and beyond is "not something I have stirred up." But it is of little wonder that Virginia has made several days of national news, and not simply because the university is a historic institution founded by Thomas Jefferson.

Behind the story of Ms. Sullivan's ouster, many higher-education experts see larger national themes that may continue to play out as boards of public colleges wrestle with serious financial pressures and growing calls from lawmakers that they do more with less.

The Virginia board's relatively quick judgment that Ms. Sullivan could not deliver, despite her long track record as an able administrator, is indicative of a broader sense of impatience felt by trustees across the United States, says Kent J. Chabotar, president of Guilford College. Faced with declining state support, confusion about the appropriate role of technology in their institutions, and the prospect that four-year residential programs may soon be a relic of higher education, "most boards are running scared," Mr. Chabator said.

In an environment where there is so much fear about the future, the time line for a president to effect major change on a campus is greatly compressed, Mr. Chabotar said. It was once rather standard to give a president two years to study the campus, build a team, and develop relationships with board members and alumni. "I think it's down to six months," Mr. Chabotar said.

John K. Thornburgh, a senior vice president at Witt/Kieffer executive search firm, agreed that boards are likely to act more swiftly on leadership changes at a time when they are being urged to make college more affordable, accessible, and accountable.

"Boards aren't going to wait it out. They are getting very spooked by the pressures—financial pressures, student pressures. They are not going to be a Kevlar vest standing in front of a president who is not going to turn things around."

At the same time, Virginia's current turmoil may serve as a warning to boards who see a change in presidents as the solution to their problems, Mr. Thornburgh added. If Virginia's board has proven anything, it's that a poorly communicated leadership change can be very time consuming. The university is "mired in damage control," and an interim president may need to be in place for a year just to allow for healing, Mr. Thornburgh said.

"What's on the record now shows a level of impatience that backfired," he said. "Right now they've got chewing gum in their hair. The more you try to get it out, the worse it becomes."

Criticism of the board has only intensified as further information has surfaced about the process that led up to Ms. Sullivan's resignation. Ms. Dragas and Mark J. Kington, the board's vice rector, caught Ms. Sullivan completely off guard June 8 when they told her they had the votes to terminate her if she did not resign, a source familiar with the conversation told The Chronicle. Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards, says the process, as described, deviates from basic standards of good governance.

"Clearly there was inappropriate attention to the level of transparency that needs to be in place when these kinds of decisions are made," Mr. Legon said. The resignation "affects certainly the president, but it also affects the larger community as well, and the board missed that in making their decision."

James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where Ms. Sullivan was previously provost, said the Virginia board's decision to pressure Ms. Sullivan to resign in the face of challenges is an indication that "many of these boards are in over their heads right now." Boards are under tremendous pressure to respond to significant financial challenges, and they are frustrated that there are no easy answers, he said.

Mr. Duderstadt, who participated in a panel last Thursday with Ms. Sullivan in Washington, D.C., said he accompanied her on a flight back to Detroit afterward. He said she spoke only in broad strokes about her experience.

"Whatever the issues were that precipitated it, she believed she did the right thing for the Uva," he said. "She stood up for principles she thought were very important, and we both talked about the expression 'Sometimes a general has to fall on his sword.' That happens sometimes."