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Sullivan saga heads into likely equally dramatic second week

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Posted: Saturday, June 16, 2012 8:29 pm | Updated: 11:20 am, Wed Jan 23, 2013.

What had seemed to be the start of a long, hot, uneventful summer in Charlottesville was ripped to shreds last week when word of the forced resignation of University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan reached the public.

With the university’s Board of Visitors unwilling to expound upon the differences it cited as leading to Sullivan’s sacking, confrontation between the faculty and the board quickly escalated. That clash already has produced a no-confidence vote in the board and the resignation of a prominent university booster, and a rollercoaster start to the week ahead appears likely.

In all the turmoil, the voice speaking for the board has been that of Helen E. Dragas, the university’s rector, and the official most-associated in public discussion with Sullivan’s resignation. She and the board have faced prolific criticism for their unwillingness to explain their differences with Sullivan.

Dragas answered a few questions from reporters just before the board’s executive committee formally accepted Sullivan’s resignation, but cut that session short and has since been almost entirely unavailable to the press. The majority of her comments have come in the form of written statements. Initially, a copy of her remarks at a meeting announcing the move to school officials was released. Later in the week, as faculty criticism continued, she released a written statement to address faculty concerns.

The second statement made explicit the board’s unwillingness to delve into the differences its members had with Sullivan, calling it a matter of “sound employment practices.”

Less than 24 hours after Dragas’ remarks went out, the executive council of the Faculty Senate voted no confidence in Dragas, Vice Rector Mark J. Kington and the Board of Visitors.

Some of Dragas’ comments in the copy of her remarks issued last Sunday have been widely taken as indicative of her thinking on the issue.

She said the university needs “bold and proactive” leadership on a number of issues, given the pace of change in the worlds of academia and health care. (The university is heavily involved in health care through its large medical center.)

She mentioned internal financial allocation, faculty compensation, recruitment and retention, online education, strategic planning and fundraising.

“We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change,” read Dragas’ remarks. “The world is simply moving too fast.”

A memo from Sullivan, written in early May and outlining a strategic plan for the university’s academic side, appears to address all of those issues except for fundraising.

When Sullivan entered the university, it was at the tail end of a massive fundraising slump. That slump began when the market entered a downturn after Lehman Brothers’ 2008 crash and didn’t end until Thanksgiving 2010, university officials have said. Sullivan took the reins Aug. 1, 2010.

During Sullivan’s tenure, the university raised an average of about $24 million per month. That’s significantly better than the average during the fundraising drought, which was $18 million, but not as good as the numbers from before that.

Under Sullivan, the university raised $502 million. December of 2011 was the third-largest single month on record. The haul was almost $87 million.

Sullivan herself has kept quiet about the turn of events.

But, nearly as the news of her ouster was being delivered, she was speaking at Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church at a service honoring high school and college graduates in the congregation.

Sullivan didn’t mention her troubles at all. But she repeatedly urged her listeners to turn to the 12th chapter of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans when they’re confronted with pressure to conform.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” reads a part of that chapter, which she quoted twice.

“Have the confidence to tell people what you believe, and to do what you think is right, even when other people disagree — even if your beliefs run counter to the pattern of the world.”

With Dragas largely silent, most of the commentary has come from other corners of the university community. A variety of groups have put out statements formally registering their outrage. There have been two votes of no confidence — from the Faculty Senate executive council and the steering committee of the Facultyof the College of Arts & Sciences. Students and alumni also have joined the fray.

One source feeding the outrage has been a leaked email from the chairman of the Darden School Foundation’s Board of Trustees.

In the email, he admitted to having known of Sullivan’s impending ouster for weeks beforehand, though in a later interview he clarified that none of the plans explained to him were presented as definite and his role involved thinking about the strategic direction of the university.

As the controversy continued, he resigned Thursday, saying he wanted to avoid negatively impacting Darden and the university as a whole.

As the weekend rolled closer, faculty activity shifted to gearing up for meetings that will be held today and Monday.

Tonight, the Faculty Senate will meet and is expected to take up the no-confidence vote already passed by its executive council. Monday morning, members of that council will meet with members of the Board of Visitors face-to-face and later that day the Board of Visitors will hold a closed meeting to consider potential interim presidents.

A number of groups across the university are expected to attend that meeting to show support for Sullivan and/or disapproval of the Board of Visitors’ actions.

“I cannot overstate the importance of faculty participation in both of these meetings [the full Faculty Senate meeting and the closed Board of Visitors meeting],” wrote David Leblang, chairman of the Department of Politics. “Decisions influencing the future of the University will be made in the coming days. The faculty need to be at the center of these decisions and discussions. We owe it to our students, our alumni and ourselves to stand up for what we value as scholars and teachers.”