A Settling of Accounts

Michael Strine. Image credit: UVa Media Relations.

Upon her reappointment to the presidency of the University of Virginia after a protracted controversy with the Board of Visitors, Teresa Sullivan made a call for unity: “There is no time for residual hostility toward anyone perceived to have been on the other side of recent disagreement. We can go forward with what is best for the University only if we go forward together.”

The spirit of forgiveness did not last long. Yesterday, Sullivan announced the resignation of the university’s chief operating officer, Michael Strine, who had been accused of being disloyal to her during the fracas.

Although Strine insisted that he was not involved with the decision to ask for her resignation in early June, he did work closely with Rector Helen Dragas during Sullivan’s absence and never distanced himself from the board, as other senior administrators had. The release of emails under the Freedom of Information Act also revealed a relationship with Dragas that went beyond cordial to downright chummy.

With the exception of Dragas, whom Governor Bob McDonnell recently reappointed to the board, Sullivan’s most visible critics are all gone. Mark Kington, a former vice rector, resigned from the board, and Peter Kiernan, a former Goldman Sachs executive, stepped down from his position running the Darden business school foundation. Even Dragas has been effectively humbled, and effectively neutered, by the overwhelming show of support by university faculty, administrators and alumni.

Reports the Daily Progress:

In a statement, Sullivan said that Strine offered his resignation “in the best interest of the university,” and that she accepted “with gratitude for his contributions and dedication to the university.” …

Sullivan said she is sure Strine’s leadership skills and commitment will stand him in good stead and that the university “will not skip a beat” as it searches for a successor.

“Will not skip a beat.” That says all we need to know about the president’s attitude toward Strine.

Sullivan is fully in charge now — even more so than before her resignation. If she is beholden to anyone, it is only to the faculty members whose cause she had always championed and who rose vociferously to her defense. Insofar as the faculty represents a reactionary force resistant to restructuring their comfortable sinecures, it will be interesting to see how vigorously she prosecutes the reforms UVa so clearly needs to make. My guess is that we’ll see more “incremental change” that doesn’t rock boats.

– JAB

Special thanks to DUI attorney Vanessa Hicks for supporting Bacon’s Rebellion.

15 Responses to A Settling of Accounts

  1. “Sullivan is fully in charge now — even more so than before her resignation. If she is beholden to anyone, it is only to the faculty members whose cause she had always championed and who rose vociferously to her defense.”.

    Yes, Jim – you have that right. God knows the state’s public universities are not beholden to the citizens – voters – taxpayers of Virginia. That’s for sure! Of course, that’s what you get when you have a grossly incompetent and culpably negligent state government.

    Thirty-seven members of the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond sit on various education committees and Terry Sullivan is beholden only to the faculty at UVA.

    That pretty much sums up the situation in Richmond.

  2. Jim,
    Gotta admit you are right about this one. If they are moving on, then moveon.org! The Strine situation seems so Banana Republic-like.

  3. I thought that Sullivan’s rehiring was a validation of the incremental approach to change? And perhaps Strine had to go because Dragas would not. Dragas was the villain in this melodrama; refusing to justify her actions or to accept that she was in the least bit beholden to stakeholders. I believe that even more than the faculty, it was the alumni to whom Dr. Sullivan should be grateful. They were the ones who hammered McDonnell with so much force that he could not follow through on a coup he might very well have engineered. (The only evidence I have for this last claim is his refusal to remove Dragas and his traditional politician’s love of the corporate mindset.)

  4. so the question is – if you were a conscientious BOV chair who wanted to nudge UVA further towards change and embracing online is this the way to have done it?

    What’s been done here is Sullivan has been essentially inoculated from further actions of the BOV, any/all attempts of which will be heavily scrutinized for telltale involvement of Dragas or those perceived to be allies.

  5. I tend to disagree. I think the combination of a stronger board of visitors and growing budget crunch is likely to force many issues to resolution. And the removal of Mr. Strine could be expected given the circumstances. But I have absolutely no personal information on which to base my assumptions.

  6. I dunno. I think the departure of Stine is not inconsequential. And if I were Sullivan, I’d be careful how I counted noses especially when hearing of new “suggestions” and “ideas” from the BOV.

    I note that the faculty has asked the BOV to do a self-assessment which indicates to me that things are not all totally settled down just yet.

  7. I would have done the same thing if I were Terry Sullivan. The COO has to be completely trusted by the President and the trust between Strine and Sullivan obviously was gone. I’d also want to be out of I were Strine. Sullivan put herself in the position of being beholden to nobody. I would not want to be the logical “fall guy” if it turns out that Sullivan was wrong and the board was right.

    In reality, we’ll never know how well Sullivan does because there are no objective measures for UVA and there is no straight-forward reporting of UVA successes and failures.

    UVA is closing in on its 200th birthday. When was the last time you saw a report on UVA’s progress over a 10, 20 or 30 year period?

    Nobody is minding the store. And, that’s exactly how one goes from “everything is fine” to “existential crisis” to “fine again” in two weeks.

    This is yet another political failure on the part of our elected officials.

  8. “UVA is closing in on its 200th birthday. When was the last time you saw a report on UVA’s progress over a 10, 20 or 30 year period?

    Nobody is minding the store. And, that’s exactly how one goes from “everything is fine” to “existential crisis” to “fine again” in two weeks.”

    These are telling comments indeed.

    And where did the Virginia Gentleman get this tradition of obsessive secrecy? Is it a predictable spin off of the Genteel Society? Or of the Aristocratic Tradition. Did it start with the Seven Society? Or is 7 Society simply a manifestation of a far deeper tradition. All these secrets wrapped deep within the smooth gloss of the genteel culture: what exactly has it got to do with Honor? Or with the respectful treatment of others? Or the responsible governance of a just Commonwealth?

    It’s all quite fascinating, this compulsive secrecy. Too bad Faulkner is no longer around. I suspect his work dilates on the question. And enlightens.

  9. ” Group of alumni slams UVa board in letter”

    excerpts:

    “In an open letter Wednesday, a group of University of Virginia alumni slammed the performance of the school’s Board of Visitors in this summer’s crisis.

    “All are burdened by the state of the university in the aftermath of the crisis, because the crisis is not over,” the alumni wrote. “It will not end until the board acknowledges publicly that UVa suffered a significant failure of corporate governance; and it will not end until Board members finally explain candidly, to satisfy common sense, what really motivated them to act so precipitously.”

    True reconciliation must include a thorough understanding of what happened this summer, when President Teresa A. Sullivan was forced to resign, but then reinstated by the board, according to the alumni. In their opinion, the explanations offered so far don’t measure up.

    “The board’s efforts at public relations obfuscate the state of governance at UVa to the point of insulting readers’ intelligence; these attempts have been clumsy and self-defeating,” wrote the alumni.

    The letter comes the day after Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Michael Strine resigned so that Sullivan can engage in what she called “some necessary internal restructuring.”

    The signatories to the letter are: Richard P. Bartley, James B. Rouse, Walter G. Birkel, Barbara D. Savage, Richard C. Bradley III, William Scanlan, Jr., Margaret Ann Brown, Andrew Stuart, Jack M. Coe, Edward C. Swindler, Mary Bland Love, Richard D. Marks, Stephen A. Taylor and Gay Outlaw.

    “The Board breached its corporate duties of due care and fair dealing,” they wrote. “The breach was not confined to the procedural. The breach also includes significant failures of substantive decision making.”

    The letter in particular is critical of the fact that the rector, Helen E. Dragas, led the board to its decision by discussing the matter individually with board members, rather than holding a discussion at a board meeting.

    They also question whether all the members of the board had even seen Sullivan’s May 3 policy memo — which addressed many of the concerns later voiced by board leadership — when Sullivan was forced out.

    The crisis isn’t over, the letter cautions.

    “In summary, the current mode of reconciliation is unconvincing,” the authors wrote. “It is doing more damage and extending the crisis. The public, informed by the press, requires us to follow the facts where they lead.”

    George Cohen, chairman of the Faculty Senate, praised the letter as “well-written and –argued.” The Faculty Senate recently also called on the board to engage in self-assessment.

    “Let’s hope they listen,” he said.

    The letter expresses concerns not just about the ouster of Sullivan, but also about the board’s actions since.

    State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County said the board has a responsibility to maintain the public’s confidence. Deeds is working with Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, to introduce legislation in Richmond concerning UVa’s governance.

    The issue isn’t closed in the public’s mind, Deeds said.

    “It’s not like this is dying down,” he said. “I still hear about this every day. People are very angry.”

    Traditionally the board refers requests for comment to the rector, who did respond via email Wednesday evening.

    “Following the unanimous vote to reinstate President Sullivan, the Board and the President have turned their attention to the responsibilities of leadership,” Dragas wrote. “We all have learned meaningful lessons that can only help us perform more effectively in our appointed responsibilities. It is past time to look forward, not back, and to focus on the challenges and opportunities facing UVa and that is what we are doing. The Board Retreat next week is an important milestone and will set the tone for the academic year that will commence in just a few short weeks.”

    let me translate what Dragas said for you: ” I screwed up. Get over it. We’re moving on.

    My prediction: Dragas is gone.

  10. The letter writers do have a valid point. Dragas screwed up by not pursuing Sullivan’s resignation through the full board. I can’t blame them for being ticked off. I wouldn’t be surprised, as you suggest, if Dragas eventually resigned. She’s damaged goods now. I don’t see how it will help for her to stick around.

  11. It’s been my view from the get go. She skulked around behind people’s backs conducting one-on-one conversations to gain allies instead of bringing the issue up forthrightly in front of the full board – …

    Why McDonnell felt fit to reappoint her knowing the ethics she practiced – hell EVERYONE ended up knowing her skulduggery tactics – makes me wonder what kind of ethics or judgement McDonnell has because “damaged goods” is if anything an understatement.

    It’s NOT what Dragas did or attempted to do – it’s HOW she did it AND her subsequent shoulder-shrugging attitude that even though she was exposed and perceived to be NOT an honest broker (and that’s putting it politely) of consultation and collaboration – she thinks it is water under the bridge and bygones will be bygones – zero remorse, zero responsibility for her actions.

    What things has she actually done to convince people that she’s not the same person she was before this happened?

    I think the faculty has it right when they ask for a self-assessment.

    I think this is their last chance offer to Dragas to admit her role and her failures in conducting that role. And if she performs as expected, she’s gone.

  12. I totally disagree with the Alumni Letter. It’s totally counter productive.

    Rather it is now time for the BoV and the President to Act. If they fail to unified action and engage in direct unvarnished truth telling in the near term, my opinion will turn 180 degrees.

    Until then, I would also urge all UVA alumni to Withhold Giving to the University Altogether. Do not reward bad behavior. Do not invest in a dysfunctional organization until its shows itself worthy of support by taking the steps necessary to reverse its decline and solve its growing problems.

    To give money now, without hard proof of progress on its part, is to harm the institution that already faces an Existential Threat.

    The BoV & President of UVa need to shift from Talk to Unified Action Now.

  13. In addition, I have been totally disappointed to date in the UVa.’s social media”outreach” program to its Alumni. So far, all I have received is pablum concocted for children. You would think the University would have more respect for those who hold degrees from the University. It’d downright insulting.

  14. Pingback: Around the Web: Yet more about the University of Virginia controversy [Confessions of a Science Librarian] - Dennis Flint High CountryDennis Flint

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