Teresa Sullivan breaks her silence

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By Paula C. Squires

After more than a week of silence, Teresa Sullivan, ousted from her presidency at U.Va. on June 10, addressed the board and released a statement Monday afternoon, saying that “corporate –style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university.”

The president defended her record, saying that she was in the midst of implementing change at Virginia’s top-rated public ivy.  “We are all aware that U.Va. 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.”

The 13-page statement was released by the strategic communications firm ML Strategies after Sullivan spoke with the board during a closed-door meeting today, an event that drew a huge crowd to the university’s Rotunda.

The statement is the first public comment from Sullivan. She was asked to step down on June 8 by a three-member committee of the university’s board of visitors led by Rector Helen E. Dragas, who said it had the full support of the university’s 16-member Board of Visitors.  Sullivan’s forced resignation, which takes effect Aug. 15, comes only two years after her appointment as the school’s first woman president. 

Sullivan said she purposely kept a low profile during the firestorm that followed her sudden ouster, which prompted demands for her reinstatement from the faculty, donors and others plus calls for Rector and Vice Rector Mark Kington to resign.

“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 not even responded to the innumerable people who have reached out to me personally and demonstrated their love for this great institution. I did not cause this reaction in the last ten days, but perhaps the reaction speaks to the depth of the connections I have made in the last 22 months. “

Responding to earlier comments by Dragas that change under Sullivan has been incremental rather than bold, she responded, “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. “

Her style, she said, was to take incremental steps to lay the groundwork for greater change. “But it has all been carefully planned and executed in collaboration with vice presidents and deans and representatives of the faculty. This is the best, most constructive, most long-lasting, and beneficial way to change a university. 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.

Sullivan said she clearly outlined her vision in a 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,” she told the board.

Sullivan praised the faculty, who have stood solidly behind her, as “one of the great strengths of U.Va.”  She said nearly every faculty member has opportunity costs for staying and has options elsewhere. “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. “ 

At the end of the day, though, Sullivan said money alone is not enough. “The faculty must also believe that they can do their best work here. They must believe in the future here. At any great university, the equilibrium – the pull between the desire to stay and the inducements to leave – is delicate.  Rapid change rapidly upsets this delicate equilibrium.” 
According to Sullivan, deans and provosts at competing institutions are setting aside funds “to raid the University of Virginia next year given the current turmoil on our campus.”

Sullivan commented on the financial challenges facing higher education, including state budget cuts, but said the school’s academic mission 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. ’’
She said the school has been working to implement a new internal financial model. “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.”

Besides working on finances, Sullivan noted other accomplishments during her brief tenure, including national searches to fill two executive vice presidencies, an increased emphasis on student safety and patient safety in the university’s hospitals and a telepresence consortium with the state, Cisco, Virginia Tech, George Mason University and James Madison University that uses technology to share courses and other resources. She would have become the consortium’s chair on July 1. “There is room for carefully implemented online learning in selected fields, but online instruction is no panacea,” she said. “It is surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential, and unless carefully managed, can undermine the quality of instruction.” 

She also addressed the issue of trust. Faculty and student groups accused the board of not acting in a transparent way since the president’s ouster caught the university community totally off guard. “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 you are thinking.” 

The president concluded her remarks by thanking the board 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 ... I am proud of my service here, and I thank you for the opportunity.”

To see the entirety of Sullivan’s statement, please go to:


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