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Update: UVA Board Votes to Reinstate President Teresa Sullivan
After just 22 months, Sullivan has been sacked. What do you think of the decision? By Carol Ross Joynt
Teresa Sullivan. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Miller_Center.
Comments () | Published June 19, 2012
Updated June 26, 4:40 PM: Needless to say, it's been an odd and bumpy June on the otherwise tranquil Charlottesville, Virginia, campus of the University of Virginia. Today the school's board voted unanimously to reinstate president Teresa Sullivan, 16 days after she was ousted. The action comes after Virginia governor Bob McDonnell said that if the school did not reinstate her, he would seek resignations of the board members. Half of them are appointed by the governor. According to reports, the meeting was called to order by Rector Helen Dragas, who led the move to have Sullivan ousted, at that time without a vote. She apologized for the way the matter was handled. Sullivan, for her turn, said, "I want to partner with you in bringing about what's best for the university." 

The original story begins below.

Though the substance of the attention is different in nature, for the second time this year the University of Virginia is making national headlines, and not for the kinds of reasons that bolster a school’s image or endear students and parents. In the winter, UVA senior George Huguely V was found guilty of the murder of his girlfriend, Yeardley Love, who was also a senior. This week the campus reportedly is in turmoil over the June 10 ousting of university president Teresa Sullivan, who held the job for only 22 months. She claims the issue is that she didn’t bring “sweeping action” to change the campus, preferring a measured pace for economic reasons.

The members of the school board, who sought Sullivan’s resignation, picked a new interim president, but as if to underscore the internal unrest, the vote for Carl P. Zeithaml, dean of the university’s school of commerce, was not unanimous. In a statement to the school community, the board’s chair, Helen E. Dragas, made reference to the controversial decision. “We certainly never wished nor intended to ignite such a reaction from the community,” the statement said. “You deserved better from this board.”

Sullivan spoke to the board in her own defense on Monday. We have paraphrased the remarks below and ask you to read them and give us your opinion. What do you think of the actions of the University of Virginia? Did the board act in haste? Was this political? Should the board itself be overhauled? Or was it a prudent decision and Sullivan’s time to go? Let us know in the comments.

We are all aware that the UVA needs to change, and for the past two years I have been working to do just that. Apparently, the area of disagreement appears to be just how that change should occur and at what pace.

I certainly want to take some time and talk about the many changes that I have made, because they are significant. But first, I need to make one thing clear. The current reaction by the faculty, staff, and students on and off grounds, and among the donors and alumni to my impending departure, is not something I have stirred up. I have made no public statement. I have done my best to keep the lowest possible profile. I have fulfilled previous commitments at the White House and elsewhere in Washington, and I have visited with friends in another state.

I have not even responded to the innumerable people who have reached out to me personally and demonstrated their love for this great institution.

Through all of the last ten days, my overriding concern has been the welfare of the University of Virginia.

I have been described as an incrementalist. It is true. 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. There has been substantial change on grounds in the past two years, and this change is laying the groundwork for greater change.

Until the last ten days, the change at UVA has not been disruptive change, and it has not been high-risk change.

Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work. UVA is one of the world’s greatest universities.Being an incrementalist does not mean that I lack vision. My vision was clearly outlined in my strategic vision statement. It encompasses the thoughts developed by me and my team as to what UVA can become in the 21st century, and parts of it were incorporated into the budget narrative that you adopted last month.

One of the great strengths of UVA is our outstanding faculty. As a tenured member of faculty, I have tried to view the campus not only from the president’s chair, but from the faculty’s lectern, and it has been an amazing and rewarding experience.

Most of the faculty could earn more in some other organization, academic or non-academic. They stay to participate with other faculty “of the highest grade” and to interact with students who will be the leaders of the next generation. Their financial sacrifices have their limits; of course the faculty must be appropriately compensated.

Already in the last ten days we have lost faculty to other universities. Fortunately, we are well past the usual hiring season in most disciplines. But deans and provosts at every peer institution are setting aside funds now to raid the University of Virginia next year given the current turmoil on our campus.

Clearly we have financial challenges. Our net financing from the state has been steadily cut for two decades, despite the efforts of the governor and general assembly to modestly reverse that trend. Both political and market forces limit the tuition we can charge. We are addressing these challenges in multiple ways.

The academic mission is central and must be protected. Strategic cutting and large-scale cost savings have therefore been concentrated in non-academic areas, and these areas have become notably leaner and more efficient.

The budgeting changes we have already set in place this year have created transparency and accountability and dispelled the perception that politics drives the internal allocation of resources.

We found funds for a 2 percent faculty pay raise last year — not enough, but the first raise of any kind in four years. Equally important, we instructed deans not to give a 2 percent raise across the board, but to allocate all raise money on the basis of merit.

This rewards our most valuable faculty and improves the incentive structure for all faculty. A dramatic top-down reallocation in our general fund, simply to show that we are “changing,” or that we are not “incremental,” seems to me fiscally imprudent, highly alarming to faculty, and unfair to students who expect to get a broadly inclusive education here. I have chosen a lower-risk and more conservative strategy, because I am accountable to the taxpayers and the tuition payers.

If we were to embark on a course of deep top-down cuts, there would also be difficult questions regarding what to cut. A university that does not teach the full range of arts and sciences will no longer be a university.

Nor can we always predict which kind of knowledge will be of greatest import in the future. Before September 11, few of us understood just how important Arabic and other Middle Eastern and Central Asian languages would become—to our students, to the nation, and to national security. Suppose we had eliminated some of those languages because of low enrollment or other fiscal considerations before 2001. We would be scrambling to re-create them now.

We are gradually increasing enrollment, preserving the quality of instruction with the initiative pre-funded by the General Assembly, and we have implemented early action in admissions, increasing our ability to compete for the best students.

Fundraising takes time. A new president first has to meet donors and establish trust and rapport. Instability is as alarming to donors as it is to faculty, and in the last few days you are already seeing the impact. Fundraising during my tenure has been rebounding from the effects of the recession and the presidential transition.

I want to turn to the issue of trust. The community of trust is not merely a term to describe a code that applies to our students. We equally need a community of trust between faculty and administration and among our leadership teams. Trust does not mean an absence of disagreement. But it requires that disagreements be frankly discussed. No matter how accomplished he or she may be, a president cannot read minds. When you choose a new president, tell him or her what you are thinking.

Finally, I would like to thank you for the great honor of leading the University of Virginia.

Whatever the problems this university may be facing, make no mistake: This is one of the world’s great universities. Every day on grounds, great ideas are pursued; outstanding books are written; patients’ lives are saved, often after despair had set in. The products and industries of tomorrow are being crafted in our laboratories, and the leaders of the twenty-first century fill our classrooms and seminar rooms.

One of the greater duties of the president is to listen carefully to the needs and aspirations of the community. Only with that input have I been able to identify and analyze the issues that required action.

I am proud of my service here, and I thank you for the opportunity.

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  • UVAgrad

    My understanding was that Governor McDonnell was going to seek the resignation of the board members if they did not resolve the matter by Tuesday afternoon, whether that meant to reinstate President Sullivan or not.

  • cathy

    the BOV acted in haste and in secrecy without a meeting and without a vote. And without an explanation until a couple of days ago. It was a disgraceful coup, as all of the Deans and most of the faculty have indicated. It was not political, but thank heavens we have a Governor willing to lend some adult supervision (I'm not a Republican) while not micromanaging. If only Dragas had remembered her own recognition of multistakholder shared governance in higher ed. Command and control is antithetical to success especially when basic procedural due process is tossed.

  • Rolandyoung2007

    The academic Philistines are in charge! Don't cut the classics and German!

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