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Firestorm at U.Va.

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Print this page by Paula C. Squires

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors Board of Visitors spent much of the past week trying to quell a firestorm sparked by the forced resignation of popular President Teresa Sullivan who will step down on Aug. 15.

But the flames keep rising higher.

On Thursday, the executive council of the U.Va. Faculty Senate approved a resolution expressing its lack of confidence in the rector, vice rector and board of visitors while supporting Sullivan. On Sunday, the faculty senate voted in favor of the executive council’s resolution.

“We offer this resolution mindful of the best interests of the university and the commonwealth,” read a statement by the council’s chairman, George Cohen.

After the faculty council passed the resolution, Rector Helen Dragas has agreed to meet with the executive council in a private meeting before the board meets Monday to discuss candidates for an interim president, according to the Daily Progress.

Meanwhile, the controversy caused another resignation. Peter Kiernan, chairman of the Darden School Foundation’s Board of Trustees,  resigned from the foundation board. Kiernan, also a nominee for the board of visitors, had sent an email to foundation trustees on June 10, the day Sullivan resigned, saying he had known of plans to oust her for several weeks.

In a statement released Thursday, Kiernan apologized for “my role in further complicating the already difficult situation after Teresa Sullivan’s resignation as president,” adding that his email “was confusing at a critical moment for the university and unfairly associated the Darden School with a situation in which it was not involved… The conversations about President Sullivan’s transition that I referred to in my e-mail were conducted through my own personal relationships and not in any official capacity. “

On Friday, the University of Virginia Student Council released a statement pressing the board of visitors for a better explanation for its actions. The council said “the current state of information on President Sullivan’s departure wholly untenable. The University of Virginia community is entitled to more information. The statements by the Board of Visitors and other University officials up to this point have been abstract, unclear, and at times contradictory.”

The student council said it is not taking sides or placing blame, “yet we feel it is our duty to provide every student at the University of Virginia the clarity and understanding they are owed.”

While Dragas said there had been an ongoing dialogue with Sullivan for an extended time regarding concerns over the school’s wellbeing, the announcement of her resignation on June 10 shocked the university community. Sullivan will leave 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.

Carol Wood, an associate vice president and spokesperson for the university, said Sullivan learned of the board’s wishes that she resign early on the evening of Friday, June 8. That same day she had led an annual offsite retreat in Albemarle County with some of her top staff where they charted plans for the university’s future.

According to many faculty members, Sullivan was caught totally off guard, and they rushed to her defense. Thirty-nine department chairs and program directors from the college and graduate school of Arts and Sciences signed a letter, asking the board to provide a fuller explanation of events and to reconsider its action.  “We believe that this abrupt and, from our point of view, opaque decision will deeply threaten the way U.Va. is perceived by prospective as well as current faculty, students, and donors. We strongly urge the Board of Visitors to reopen discussion with President Sullivan and the faculty,” the letter said.  “Our surprise and concern arise directly from the fact that we have been very pleased with the direction in which President Sullivan and her administrative team have been leading U.Va.” 

In a statement, the Faculty Senate Executive Council said it had been “blindsided” by the news.  “As elected representatives of the faculty, we are entitled to a full and candid explanation explanation of this sudden and drastic change in university leadership.”

Responding to the faculty criticism, Dragas has acknowledged that the board “heard your concern that our deliberation on this matter was not inclusive of the faculty or transparent to the university community” she said in a statement.  “The board publicly and continuously provided support to President Sullivan in order to advance her success … Nevertheless the board can assure you that there was ongoing dialogue with the president over an extended period of time, regarding matters for which we are responsible. These include ensuring the long-term health and well-being of the university through development of a credible statement of strategic direction and a long-term resource plan.” 

In an earlier statement to the college’s vice presidents and deans, Dragas said the board wanted “bold and proactive” leadership, to tackle difficult issues, including financial decisions, faculty compensation and staffing.  She also cited the need for a faster pace of change in a current environment where Dragas said, “We see no bright lights on the financial horizon as we face limits on tuition increases, an environment of declining federal support, state support that will be flat at best and pressure on health-care payors.”

For U.Va. to remain in the top tier of universities well into the 21st century, she said,  the school needs “a leader with a great willingness to adapt the way we deliver our teaching, research and patient care to the realities of an external environment.”

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