University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan — in her first interview since Rector Helen E. Dragas was confirmed by the state legislature earlier this week — acknowledged the university is tense place, but said she still believes in reconciliation.
"I called for reconciliation back in June and I still think that that is important for us," she said.
Sullivan said being in a tense situation is part of a president's job. Sullivan reports to Dragas, but deals daily with students and faculty.
Dragas led the push to oust Sullivan during the summer, then was reappointed to the school’s Board of Visitors by Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Earlier this month, the student council unanimously asked the legislature not to confirm Dragas’ appointment, which it did, in a split, but not close, vote. The Faculty Senate has not withdrawn its vote of no-confidence in Dragas, passed during the crisis.
"I am the person who ends up communicating with all sides," Sullivan said.
She added, "Is that going to make all the tension go away? Probably not."
Sullivan said many other presidents face less-than-smooth relations among campus stakeholders, be it between president and faculty, president and board or some other source.
"I assure that it's difficult for every president at every institution," she said.
In spite of the difficulties, leaders are working to move forward, she said.
"What can I say?" she said. "We're trying. It's a work in progress, but I'm very optimistic about it."
Sullivan steadfastly continued in her refusal to rehash June's events, saying at this point it's something that may need to be left to historians.
But it did show that UVa is important to the world of higher education, she said.
"What happened showed that UVa is an important institution for people who doubted it," Sullivan said.
Public higher education is something Sullivan is devoted to. She sees it as her job to help save it.
"I think that public higher education is one of the great gifts the United States has given the world," Sullivan said.
Sullivan said she sees many critics of public higher education are pushing for a sort of leveling effect.
"I don't think adequacy is what parents want for their kids at the end of the day," she said.
UVa ever settling for something less than greatness would send a strong message to the rest of the world, she said.
She recently spent a legislative breakfast talking to state lawmakers about UVa exceptionalism, she said.
While there are criticisms that can be leveled at higher education in general, many of them don't really apply to UVa, she said.
"I have to spend a lot of time as the spokesperson for the university saying, 'Yeah, that’s not us,'" she said.
Sullivan said critical issues, such as fundraising and state support, remain in the forefront, but UVa is still in a strong financial position.
She said that, in many cases, everyone's waiting to see what everyone else will do before committing funding — alumni want to see the General Assembly chipping in before donating, while state officials want to see that UVa isn't putting all of the burden on the state, for example.
The problem for higher education is a basic one, she said: Everyone wants top-notch education, for themselves or for loved ones, but no one wants to bear the financial burden.
UVa expects to hire a host of new faculty, both as enrollment slightly expands and as existing faculty age out. That will present the university with both a big bill and a big opportunity, she said.
The university needs to re-imagine how it hires professors, she said. The thought process for replacing professors needs to change, and in some cases, UVa needs to start finding the perfect candidate and pursuing him or her, rather than waiting to see what applications come in, Sullivan said.
Strategic planning is continuing, she said. Planners are seeking buy-in from the university community and bouncing ideas off of people, she said. At the board’s August retreat, Sullivan will present the plan to them.
The final decision is, Sullivan emphasized, the board’s, but she said she hopes to have so much buy-in by then that it’s handily accepted.
“It’s not up to me,” she said. “It’s up to them.”