By Paula C. Squires
In the end, the olive branch trumped at Mr. Jefferson’s university. After 16 days of campus upheaval following the sudden ouster of President Teresa A. Sullivan, the 15-member U.Va. Board of Visitors voted unanimously Tuesday to reinstate Sullivan and to rescind the naming of an interim president.
The board also approved a vote of confidence in Rector Helen E. Dragas of Virginia Beach. She helped engineer the president’s forced resignation, which sparked a faculty uproar, campus demonstrations, a debate on the challenges facing higher education and calls for Dragas’ resignation.
The drama, however, isn’t over yet. Gov. Bob McDonnell hasn’t said if he will reappoint Dragas, whose term on the board expires Saturday. Dragas is eligible for another four-year term. The governor did weigh in, though, on the board’s action which he demanded last week, saying he would ask for the resignation of the entire board if it did not come to a final decision during its meeting today on the fate of Sullivan, who received a groundswell of support.
“I congratulate Dr. Teresa Sullivan on her reappointment to the post of President,” McDonnell said in a statement. “Dr. Sullivan’s leadership has added nearly 1,000 new slots for in-state students at the university, while reducing this year’s tuition growth to the lowest increase in a decade … It is evident she is well-regarded in the university community.”
The governor noted that the past few weeks have not been easy for U.Va. “There has been too little transparency; too much vitriol. Too little discussion; too much blame. Now, with today’s board action, the time has come for Mr. Jefferson’s university to move forward. The statements made today by board members and President Sullivan were poignant and gracious and set the right tone for collaboration ahead.”
He also commented indirectly on Dragas, perhaps foreshadowing what he might do. Regarding criticism leveled at the board, “much of that criticism has been directed at the first woman to serve as Rector of the Board of Visitors,” McDonnell said. “This has been very unfortunate and counterproductive. It has not been in keeping with traits long associated with the university such as civility in discourse and open dialogue. The board itself admittedly made mistakes and did not act with the procedural transparency that should be accorded such a significant decision.”
The complete turnaround of events — from an angry campus firestorm to Tuesday’s unified front — was welcomed by U. Va. supporters. John Wynne, a former board member of eight years and rector at the time of Sullivan’s hiring in 2010, said in a telephone interview from Virginia Beach, “This is sensational. The university can come back together and move forward. I think you’re going to see acceleration in the pace of change and the level of support from everyone.”
Asked if Sullivan would be able to trust Dragas, Wynne responded, “I hope we can all resume our relationships and be mutually supportive. “ Wynne, who acknowledged that he had been upset over the ouster of U.Va’s first woman president after only two years, spoke highly of both women. “I’ve known Helen a long time. We live about a mile from each other. I’ve worked with her and mentored her and have nothing but the highest respect for her integrity,” he said. “There were some mistakes made and, if it could be done over, I’m sure things would have been different.”
The emphasis, now, he added, should be on moving forward. Wynne, a retired CEO for Landmark Communications who worked with Sullivan for 11 months before he left the board, said, “I thought she was super, and she was doing exactly what we asked her to do.”
Dragas opened the board meeting at the university’s Rotunda with conciliatory words. Dressed in a bright, coral suit, she said the trauma of the last two weeks had turned all eyes in higher education on the university, one of the country’s top ranked public ivies. “I’d like to reiterate an apology to the U. Va. community … We simply did not give adequate context to and reasoning behind our thinking, and the concerns we had about the direction of the university that led us to take the action we did.” Although Dragas later released a detailed statement on concerns, she conceded that it came too late. “I want to say once again to the university and to my fellow visitors: I sincerely apologize for the way this was presented, and you deserved better.”
In earlier statements, Dragas said she pushed for Sullivan’s ouster, because she and others felt the president was making incremental change rather than taking bold action to craft a long-term, strategic vision that would address such issues as dwindling state revenues, faculty pay and the role of online education.
On Tuesday, though, Dragas voted for the resolution to reinstate, offered by board member Heywood Fralin of Roanoke, a former U. Va rector.
In remarks to the board, Fralin said, “Everyone agrees that the process was flawed. It can never be repeated … Clearly I did not agree, and have never gotten the facts that would have justified the resignation of Sullivan. However, we shouldn’t question the integrity of those who supported the decision.”
He added that every board member knew that the rector and former vice rector, Mark Kington — who resigned on June 19 as a result of the uproar — were going to meet with Sullivan to ask for her resignation. However, Fralin said, he was confident that the board would have called a meeting and that a full rigorous discussion would have ensued, prior to any final vote. “Had this meeting been held, this crisis should have been avoided,” he said.
Instead, Sullivan agreed to resign on June 8, after Dragas and Kington met with her and told her they had enough votes on the board to force her resignation. Two days later, a three-member committee of the board’s executive committee consisting of Dragas, Kington, and board member Hunter E. Craig, accepted Sullivan’s resignation. Dragas announced the decision to a shocked campus community on June 10, saying the board and Sullivan had come to a mutual agreement.
The announcement caught the faculty totally off guard, and they rushed to Sullivan’s defense with vigils, demonstrations and calls for both Dragas’ and Kington’s resignation. Before the leadership crisis was over, it brought four resignations: Sullivan, Kington, Peter Kiernan, chairman of the Darden School Foundation board of trustees and computer science professor Bill Wulf.
Dragas told the board that she and Sullivan met prior to the board’s Tuesday meeting. “We had a good conversation ... We have always respected each other on a personal level, and we still do,” she said.
At one point during the controversy, Sullivan reportedly said she would only consider staying if Dragas resigned. However, that condition was apparently put aside; as Dragas said the two women agreed that the focus now should be on healing divisions and moving the campus forward.
Dragas, CEO of the largest home-building company in Hampton Roads, has been criticized for bringing a more corporate-style approach to higher education. At this point, she thinks good things can come out of her more critical approach and attempt to remove Sullivan. “It is unfortunate that we had to have a near-death experience to get here, but the university should not waste the enormous opportunity at hand,“ she told the board. The situation, she says, has focused the attention of the entire university on addressing the reality and urgency of issues facing not only UVa., but all of higher education as states cut budgets and universities look for new ways to support themselves and to educate students.
Sullivan also spoke briefly after the board’s vote. “Thank you for renewing your confidence in me and once again giving me the opportunity to lead the University of Virginia,” she said. “I want to partner with you in bringing about what is best for the future of the university. I do not ask that we sweep any differences under the rug, but rather that we engage one another in candor and respect.”
In later remarks, Sullivan said, “I believe that those with opposing viewpoints have been well intentioned, acting only with the best interests of the university in mind.” She also thanked her supporters. “I will do all in my power not to disappoint.”