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What happened?

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Print this page by Paula C. Squires

In January, University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas spoke in glowing terms about the new leadership team at U.Va., including President Teresa Sullivan, whom she referred to as “our very talented president” during an interview and follow-up remarks with Virginia Business magazine. The interview appeared in the March issue, along with a full transcript at the magazine’s website.  (http://bit.ly/KlEOyS)

Three months later, on June 10, Dragas shocked the university by announcing that Sullivan, the university’s first woman president, will step down on Aug. 15. Her resignation comes after only two years on the job — the shortest tenure of any president in U.Va’s history.  The previous president, John T. Casteen III, served for 20 years.

Sullivan, who agreed to resign after reportedly learning last Friday that the board wanted her out, said in a statement she was leaving due to a “philosophical difference of opinion.” 

During a meeting with the school’s vice presidents and deans on Sunday, Dragas commended Sullivan on many fronts, including her ability to engage with the university community. Yet, she said that the board “feels strongly and overwhelmingly that we need bold and proactive leadership on tackling the difficult issues that we face. The pace of change in higher education and in health care has accelerated greatly in the last two years.”

Dragas added that in today’s environment of declining state support and tuition increases, the school needs a faster pace of change in “administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation. We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change.”

In late May, the board’s finance committee approved a $2.6 billion budget for the university, which takes effect on July 1, amid gloomy talk about little new funding. The budget was about 4 percent higher than the previous year’s budget, with most of the increase coming from the medical school. 

No dissatisfaction with Sullivan’s performance was evident during Dragas’ interview earlier this year. In commenting on the challenges of serving as the rector of a large, revered” public ivy” — U.Va. consistently ranks as the No. 2 best public university in the U.S. —  Dragas told Virginia Business of the “special opportunity” of working with the university’s new management team.

“And there is another, I won’t call it a challenge, but really a very special opportunity we have,” she said. “While there are several new presidents of Virginia institutions right now, at U.Va. we have a whole new leadership team.  Our very talented president, Teresa Sullivan, has been in Charlottesville a year and a half.  We have a stellar new chief operating officer and executive vice president, Michael Strine … And we have a brilliant new provost in John Simon,” Dragas told the magazine. 

“ … In addition to that new talent, we have a board of visitors that changes relatively dramatically with every gubernatorial appointment year. So we have a lot of new energy at U.Va.  providing us with a unique moment in time to set the course for our next era of great achievement. It’s a really exciting time to be engaged there.”

Dragas also described what she saw as her role as rector. “My job there really is to engage the board and include the board in setting long-term direction for the university,” Dragas said. 

Virginia Business contacted Dragas’ office on Monday and Tuesday asking her to comment on the resignation, but she could not be reached.

Dragas is the president and CEO of The Dragas Cos. in Virginia Beach, the largest homebuilder in Hampton Roads. A UVa. alumna (class of 1984), she was first appointed to the board in 2008 by then-Gov. Tim Kaine, and became the board’s first female rector last July.

Since Sunday’s surprise announcement by Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington that Sullivan and the board “mutually agreed” to her resignation, members of the university community have expressed shock and dismay. The university’s faculty senate released a statement saying it was “blindsided” by the news. “We find the board’s statement inadequate and unsatisfactory. We understand the university … 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.”

The senate said it would seek a meeting with the board of visitors so it could get a “full and candid explanation of this sudden and drastic change in university leadership.” 

Sullivan was asked to resign by a three-person executive committee of the board, consisting of Dragas, Klington and board member Hunter Craig.  A vote on her ouster was not taken by the full board, nor was one required since Sullivan agreed to resign.

Others in the university community, while expressing dismay privately about Sullivan’s abrupt resignation, refused to comment publicly, saying they had been told to direct all media requests to U.Va’s Carol Wood, an associate vice president and spokesperson in the office of the president.

John “Dubby” Wynn, a retired Landmark Communications executive in Norfolk, the university’s rector at the time of Sullivan’s hiring in 2010, also did not want to talk about the unexpected turn of events. “At this time, I am not making any comments on this situation,” he said in an email.  “I ceased to be rector and a member of the board of visitors last June.”

The board plans to have an interim president on campus before the new school year begins in September.  Terms of Sullivan’s separation are expected to be announced in about two weeks. Provost John Simon and COO Michael Strine have been charged with running the university’s daily operations. 

While losing a top executive at any nonprofit can have an impact on fundraising, at least one expert said he didn’t think U.Va. would suffer.  Keith Curtis, president of the Curtis Group in Virginia Beach, a fundraising consulting firm, said, “Typically when you lose a top CEO at any type of nonprofit organization, it can have an impact … The real issue here, in terms of how it will impact fundraising, is how will the donors react to the resignation? Are they okay with it?  I know there are some concerns within the faculty about the decision, but how are the donors going to react?”

U.Va. has a very seasoned development staff, Curtis added.  “ I’m sure they are reaching out to their donors and connecting with them. That will be the key piece, to make sure that the donors are informed and kept up to date.  I don’t’ really think in the long run that it will have a significant impact unless there is something that we hear about in the coming weeks, about the decision.” 


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