Finger-Pointing Follows Ousting Of U.Va. President

Jun 19, 2012
Originally published on June 19, 2012 5:59 pm



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. The University of Virginia is reeling over the sudden firing of its president. Last week, the school's state-appointed governing board surprised the university community with that announcement. The ousted president, Teresa Sullivan, was in the job for less than two years.

Faculty and students have rallied behind Sullivan, calling the firing a coup by the board. From member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman reports.

SANDY HAUSMAN, BYLINE: More than 2,000 students and faculty gathered on the lawn, waving signs, cheering and offering pats on the back as 62-year-old Teresa Sullivan headed into a closed meeting with the Board of Visitors that no longer wanted her services.

It's been a week of turmoil since last Sunday, when the board's leader, Rector Helen Dragas, announced Sullivan had been forced out. Dragas and her allies had apparently been calling members one by one to gauge support for a plan to oust Sullivan. No vote was taken. Instead, Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington informed Sullivan that they could remove her, and she resigned.

Dragas offered a brief and vague explanation.

HELEN DRAGAS: We are living in a time of rapidly accelerating change. That environment, we believe, calls for bold, strategic visionary leaders to take us to the next level.

HAUSMAN: The news shocked Sullivan and the faculty. Sometimes a quarrelsome bunch, they united to issue a statement of support for Sullivan and no support for the board.

Siva Vaidhyanathan chairs the Department of Media Studies.

SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: If the Board of Visitors is not comfortable having a premier scholar, teacher and leader with years of experience and a sterling reputation like Teresa Sullivan, it boggles the mind to think who the board might actually prefer.

HAUSMAN: Less than two years ago, Sullivan was the board's unanimous choice to lead UVA. She went almost immediately to the legislature to ask for more money. And when Virginia's attorney general demanded to see emails and documents produced by a well-known climate scientist, Sullivan fought him in court and won. But during her brief tenure, Virginia's governor appointed eight new people to the board.

States and public universities are increasingly at war over money, priorities and values, says Robert Kaiser at the American Association of University Professors. He blames leadership that doesn't understand scholarship.

ROBERT KAISER: More and more, presidents and chancellors are coming from non-academic backgrounds - either from the law or from business - and don't understand what the academic enterprise is about. And, in fact, there have been some colleges and universities recently where presidents have been insisting that faculty members keep track of their hours each day.

HAUSMAN: At UVA, Rector Dragas criticized Sullivan for failing to enter the profitable market of online education and taking too long to make spending cuts. But in parting remarks to the board, Sullivan warned that corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university. She noted that instability makes donors uneasy. And, in fact, this controversy has led some to say they'll stop writing checks until the board members who pushed Sullivan out are themselves removed.

But Governor Bob McDonnell says he doesn't want to meddle in the board's business, and Rector Helen Dragas says she's not going anywhere. She'll stay, she says, to ensure great education at UVA.

DRAGAS: And in our push for excellence, we seek also to be responsive to families and taxpayers who foot our bills and to legislators who demand accountability.

HAUSMAN: After a marathon meeting of nearly 12 hours, the Board of Visitors announced they had selected an interim president, the dean of UVA's undergraduate business school, and would soon begin a search for Sullivan's permanent replacement.

For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman in Charlottesville, Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.