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Edited emails give hints at pre-Sullivan leadership strategy at UVa

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Posted: Saturday, July 14, 2012 10:50 pm | Updated: 3:24 pm, Tue Jan 22, 2013.

In his opening instructions to the search committee that eventually put forward Teresa A. Sullivan for the job of eighth president of the University of Virginia, then-Rector John O. “Dubby” Wynne told committee members to be cagey.

He reminded them that documents could be requested under the Freedom of Information Act and that, while some would be shielded, others would have to be released.

“Therefore, any written correspondence, (including email) that is in any way related to the search should be cautiously worded, without any expectation of privacy,” Wynne cautioned in colleagues. “In short, don’t write it down unless you wouldn’t mind seeing it on the front page of the Washington Post.”

One such batch of emails was released late Friday night by UVa in the wake of Sullivan’s ouster and reinstatement. Many names were redacted, but the documents do show some of the thoughts presumably important people shared with the committee about what the next president should be like.

Wynne planned to have his committee host open forums, meet with representatives from academia, foundations, staff, faculty and others. There would also be personal visits.

“We are developing a list of people we believe should be visited individually because of their significance to the university,” Wynne wrote.

Former Rector Gordon F. Rainey would meet with key donors, and other committee members might be assigned other visits, depending on who seemed the best person for the job.

And committee members would be meeting with “higher education experts or thought leaders.”

Many of the released emails are Rainey’s or then-board member Helen E. Dragas’ reports on conversations they held with various people to find out what they wanted to see in the next president.

The names of the people Rainey and others had such conversations with were redacted. It was not clear why.

In some cases, the suggestions from different people vary wildly.

On Oct. 22, 2009, Rainey relayed a conversation about what the next president should be like that he had with someone, though it remains unclear who, other than that the person was a woman.

The now-unnamed woman said that the university “cannot be all things to all people,” and reminded Rainey that, despite all the talk about science and technology, it is the humanities that have put the university on the national map. The mystery woman also emphasized the importance of fundraising and said that the percentage of out-of-state students should get no higher than it was then.

“She said she had heard a ‘rumor’ that we were looking for a woman/minority and that that was not the right way to be considering this challenge,” Rainey wrote. “I assured her we were concerned only about getting the best possible person regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, etc.”

The next day, Rainey reported a meeting in which the person he spoke with advised that if the committee didn’t find “Mr. or Mrs. Perfect” the university hire a president to make a lot of changes in a (for UVa presidencies) short period, four to six years. That unnamed person also thought the president must be “aggressive in pushing the state to permit higher levels of out of state enrollment and in raising state tuitions to market levels.”

An Oct. 18 email from Rainey summarizes interviews with a number of (now unnamed) people. Among the various pieces of advice were admonitions to “be cautious” about hiring someone without experience at UVa, find someone with a high energy level, but not aggressive enough to offend, and to “stay away from someone from the Northeast (Ivys) unless they really understand UVa.”

One person Dragas, who is now the rector, met with suggested the university hire someone who could deal with health care reform and who had an “international view in principle.”

Another unnamed participant in such a conversation suggested the university needed to be asking itself if there’s a “fundamental economic reset” in higher education that could limit the ability of tuition to increase.

“Decisiveness is not as important as one might think,” read Dragas’ notes of this person’s remarks. “Rather, a president needs an ability to make ‘bold strokes and long marches,’ knowing when to be decisive after a period of team-building and consensus garnering. He or she needs to have enough spine to know when to stand up, but have an instinct for bringing people together.”

This person also thought the president would “need to be more of a politician than a person of high raw intelligence,” Dragas’ notes state

The board should be honest with the new president, and should “take a strong look at someone who is not a 65 or 75 year old white gentleman,” this person said, according to Dragas’ notes.

Sullivan’s supporters have portrayed her as having built consensus as the first step to bringing change. Her critics have called her an incrementalist.

An email from an anonymous adviser that Rainey forwarded to the search committee advised a candidate with a “solid understanding of the UVa culture.”

“I think this would be a significant challenge for someone who has not enjoyed the UVa experience in some meaningful fashion,” the person wrote.

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