A Better Explanation, Please

Carr’s Hill, soon-to-be-empty home of the University of Virginia president.

We are now nearly 48 hours into the Teresa-Sullivan-resignation news cycle but only a little closer to understanding why the University of Virginia president and Board of Visitors decided to part company. Rector Helen Dragas made some vague comments Sunday about disagreements over the university’s strategic direction, but otherwise the board has not been forthcoming.

Very possibly, the opacity is motivated by a desire to avoid getting into specifics that would embarrass the widely liked Sullivan or drag the university into an  unseemly mud-slinging contest like the one that followed the eviction of Gene Nichol from the presidency of William & Mary. However, the proffered explanations of Sullivan’s ouster seem to satisfy nobody. The University of Virginia faculty is in shock, while many outsiders who knew Sullivan are surprised and dismayed.

With all due respect to Sullivan’s right to depart with quiet dignity, the board owes the public a better explanation. The University of Virginia is the commonwealth’s flagship educational institution and what happens there sets the tone for the rest of the public university system. The stakes are simply too high. Higher education is facing a crisis in the United States as parents and students rebel against runaway tuition hikes and new technologies threaten to disrupt the traditional model of providing education in isolated campus settings.

By all accounts, Sullivan was a popular and effective president — at least by traditional collegial standards. But if she was not displaying sufficient alacrity in adapting to the fiscal, economic and technological challenges to Mr. Jefferson’s University, the board needs to say so.


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  1. FreeDem Avatar

    “By all accounts, Sullivan was a popular and effective president — at least by traditional collegial standards.”

    Citation needed. Not what I’ve heard, in any way.

    1. When I say, “by all accounts,” I mean by all published accounts. I base that statement entirely upon the press coverage. If you’ve heard otherwise, I’d be most interested to hear.

      1. FreeDem Avatar

        I haven’t heard one person from the student body praise Sullivan, which seems like an interesting contrast to the purge of Nichol, where both the faculty and the student body stuck with him in the face of the board and alumni donors.

  2. larryg Avatar

    I really don’t care if she was popular or not or even “damn good” myself.

    She was not fired for “cause” … it was, “in theory” – an agreement to part company because of “irreconcilable differences”.

    I don’t see right or wrong here… but the process is less than wonderful and exposes (once again) how Virginia is really “governed” by elites who have no compunction to feel accountability to taxpayers (or toll payers) at all.

    DJ has ranted about this in a variety of ways and things like this expose a Virginia that is anything but good government.

  3. DJ has a mono-explanation for everything. Every problem, every boil and pimple in the commowealth, is the fault of the “Clown Show in Richmond.” Sometimes he makes valid points. As often as not, he’s totally unconvincing.

    So, here we have an example of a Board of Visitors parting ways with a university president. I can assure you, if the BoV had let things run longer without acting, DR would be blaming the “Clown Show” for its failure to act. In this case, it did act. He’s blaming the “Clown Show” anyway. It reminds me of Medieval Christians blaming “Satan” or “the devil” for every bad thing that happened.

    Set DR aside for the moment. Larry, you see this incident as an example of Virginia being governed by elites. How are public universities in other states in other states governed? Don’t they have boards of visitors? Aren’t those boards comprised of prominent individuals from around the state? How are those boards appointed? By the governor? The legislature? By popular election? Do you propose a different governance model?

    I would suggest — and I may blog on this — that the problem isn’t the board of visitors but the conflicting missions of modern-day universities. UVa is a residential campus that educates undergraduates. It runs a health system. It pursues Research & Development. It has an economic development mission and operates research parks. And that’s just off the top of my head. Competing for resources, those missions are inherently in conflict with one another. Perhaps it shouldn’t be in the business of doing all those things.

    That strikes me as a more plausible underlying problem than who appoints the board members.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      The governor didn’t know about this until June 6. Saying the “Clown Show” acted is absurd in the extreme.

      The “Clown Show” appointed ill-prepared campaign contributors to the BoV and then forgot about the University of Virginia.

      The unelected and unaccountable BoV then fired the president of UVA on a Sunday morning with no adequate explanation.

      It seems that neither the governor nor the General Assembly has any idea what is going on at UVA.

      The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond has never looked more buffoonish.

      1. So, what’s the alternative? You can either have a decentralized system, in which each institution governs itself as in Virginia, or you can have centralized system, as in North Carolina. A centralized system would give *more* power to the Clown Show. Is that really a good idea?

        One more alternative might be to privatize the universities — get the state out of higher education all together. Just give college-bound students vouchers. I might go for that. Would you?

        1. DJRippert Avatar

          Most boards have a requirement for shareholder votes in the case of major decisions.

          The unelected, unaccountable and opaque UVA BoV should not have been able to fire the president without the express permission of the elected and presumably accountable governor.

          Once again, Richmond has ceded responsibility for a critical asset to a group of people who are distinguished primarily by their ability to make campaign contributions.

        2. DJRippert Avatar

          I have long called for selling UVA and W&M outright. The endowments and a promise of a share of future revenues could pay for it.

          The money should be used to improve the public universities in Virginia’s urban areas – GMU, VCU and ODU/CNU. This improvement should focus on the STEM curricula and should include the mandate to provide online education to all of Virginia’s other public institutions.

          I am not sure what to do with VT. That university actually tried to contribute to Virginia’s overall economic success but is located too far from an urban center. Maybe have VT establish a serious multi-campus program or merge GMU, VCU, ODU/CNU with VT into the “Virginia University System”.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      It’s always interesting to see Jim Bacon’s Richmond – apologist philosophy in action.

      The MWAA is an unelected, opaque, transparent organization. However, the CTB and the UVA BoV is just fine. Bacon even makes the absurd point that the UVA BoV is subject to FOIA. Fine, Jim – please request the minutes of the three person executive committee meeting where it was decided that Terry Sullivan should be fired.

      Jim’s critique of government is, at least, simple to understand – if it emanates from Richmond it is sacrosanct. If it happens anywhere else, it is a catastrophe.

  4. larryg Avatar

    You asked: what governance model?

    for starters – not elites and certainly not campaign donors. Big money donations should be automatically disqualifying – not the other way around.

    BOV should be proportionally representative of the stakeholders to include faculty, students, parents and taxpayers.

    For MWAA – toll payers, taxpayers and transit users.

    we poke fun at California but their residents have far more influence on governance than Virginian’s do.

    1. Larry, If you can do the legwork and cross check all the members of the BoV with CPAP, I’ll he happy to run the list of board members and their campaign contributions.

  5. larryg Avatar

    I thought DJ already did that… no?

    also… most elected in Va are required to file a declaration of economic interests – I think – to include their payments to others .

    On the BOV website, there is no such disclosures for the members.

    that one requirement alone – that every such appointee has to provide that disclosure and it has to be on the website… would flag questionable appointments up front.

    but this digresses from the central issue. I do not see any nexus between their campaign contributions and their actions …it’s just an odious aspect of their appointments.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      I didn’t have to cross check with VPAP. When McDonnell appointed his first four members to the UVA BoV it was widely reported how much they had contributed to his various campaigns.

      Helen Dragas, a supposed Democrat, was one of those contributors.

      Here is one quick result from a Google search –


      Also, let’s debunk the myth that campaign contributions are open and transparent in Virginia.

      VPAP is a great site and a great resource. However, both parties in Virginia have adopted the federal pig’s trick of endless interlocking PACs to hide who, exactly, is donating to whom.

      For example, Bob McDonnell’s largest single contributor, by far, was the Republican Party – National Committee. However, even with this obfuscation, two UVA BoV members managed to check in as the 15th and 20th largest donors to Bob McDonnell’s 2009 campaign. Kirk donated $100,000 and Kington $88,632. Please remember, that was one candidate in one election one year.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    If you run the list past CPAP you may not get anywhere. Suggest VPAP.

  7. DJRippert Avatar

    It seems that Mr. Randal J Kirk – UVA BoV member – has donated just a smidge over $2M to Virginia political campaigns from 1999 through 2001.


    Now Jim – here is your challenge – find a UVA BoV member who hasn’t donated money. And – the student representative doesn’t count.

    Nice government you have there in Richmond, Jimbo.

  8. larryg Avatar

    Jim asks …” a better way”..

    My problem with a lot of these boards is that they do not have representation from those who are affected by the decisions and there is scant measures of accountability.

    The “qualifications” of MWAA, UVA BOV, CTB, etc, et al seem to be about as nebulous as can be with the Gov saying he appoints “good, smart people”.

    who just happen to be not stakeholders but the perceived movers and shakers…often wealthy and often involved in political issues also.

    this hews to DJ’s core rant about how Virginia is governed – i.e. by elites sitting behind closed doors deciding what is “best” for their “lessors”.

    these boards and commissions are largely insular and almost wholly not accountable for their decisions. They constitute an unelected shadow governance – a de-facto “appointed” legislature…. separate and apart from elected govt.

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