Helen Dragas Has a Lot of Explaining to Do

Helen Dragas. Photo credit: Virginia Business

The Virginia press is actually doing its job for once, surfacing pertinent information about the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Teresa Sullivan from the presidency of the University of Virginia. It looks like the Board of Visitors needs to come clean with the full story.

First, this from the Washington Post: After consulting with board members over several months, Rector Helen E. Dragas felt she had a consensus on the board to ask for Sullivan’s resignation. She phoned Governor Bob McDonnell to inform him of her intentions. The governor and staff were surprised but did not act to block her. She then called an emergency meeting of the executive committee Sunday. Only three members, the minimum quorum, attended. Of the other three, one had a broken hip and could not travel, one was out of the country, and one could not make it for unspecified reasons. Thus, the decision to request Sullivan’s resignation was made by three people out of a 16-person board.

Although Dragas purported to act with the overwhelming support of the board, the Post cited “former board members and a university official with knowledge of the situation” as saying that some board members knew nothing of the plan to remove Sullivan until Dragas informed them last week.

Then, there’s this from the Roanoke Times editorial board:

The Sunday meeting of the executive committee, in which three members of the 16-person board voted to accept Sullivan’s resignation, was wrongly treated as an emergency meeting, circumventing public notice rules.

State law defines an emergency as “an unforeseen circumstance rendering the [three-day] notice required … impossible or impracticable and which circumstance requires immediate action.”

That definition bears little resemblance to the events leading up to the weekend meeting. Board members had been privately discussing Sullivan’s removal for months. Gov. Bob McDonnell was informed of the board’s decision four days before the Sunday vote. Sullivan was notified on Friday that she no longer had the board’s support.

The notice for Sunday’s meeting was released at 9:17 a.m., less than five hours before the vote. The Office of the Attorney General advised the board that an emergency meeting was permitted, but there was no reason for haste. Sullivan will not step down until Aug. 15.

Why the haste? Why was it imperative to extract Sullivan’s resignation so quickly? Dragas has hinted at differences between Sullivan and the board — differences, in my humble judgment, that might justify seeking a new president — but none were so urgent that required the board’s immediate action. If there was an emergency, Dragas has not explained what it was. She needs to justify acting in such a precipitous manner.

The next wave of reporting should focus on this question: What sparked the forced resignation? In January, Dragas referred to Sullivan in a Virginia Business interview as “our very talented president” who was part of a superb new management team.  I have perused the minutes of the Board of Visitors meetings and found no sign of conflict in those formal meetings. Whatever problem there was, it was lurking  beneath the surface. But the rift came to a head very suddenly. What happened?

Sullivan’s forced resignation has caused an uproar among UVa faculty, alumni and other stakeholders. Understandably so — that’s not the way you handle the resignation of a popular president. Things are getting worse, not better. Dragas owes a full explanation.

(By the way, you can learn more about Dragas by reading the transcript of Virginia Business‘ interview with her. It covers a lot of ground. … Update: Or you can read the previous post, written by Peter, which he apparently entered while I was writing this.)


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  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka


    Beatcha to this! Faster! Better! More reflective!

  2. larryg Avatar

    We’ve got the wrong emPHASIS on the wrong SyllABLE. Virginia designs these board to institutionally operate this way. Dragas was not doing anything untoward in terms of procedure… she was adhering to the institutional procedures codified in the charter of the BOV.

    The question is why does the State of Va configure boards like this?

    We make Draas the Goat and maybe she is but why is she allowed to do this kind of process to start with?

    why is any board allowed to operate this way…whether the BOV, MWAA or CTB?

    Va has a big problem with these boards IMO. They are designed to be controlled by well-connected, usually Monied elites who feel no accountability to legitimate stakeholders.

    Only a week or so ago.. folks we harrumphs about this fellow Matisse running amok … or the Falls Church water authority or the Hampton Roads MPO..none of them direct elected and none of them accountable to those who are directly affected by their actions.

    WE are demonizing Dragas (perhaps rightly so) but we are ignoring how it comes to be that 3 people working under the radar can fire a President of a University without consulting with hardly anyone.

    Don’t blame Dragas, blame the way VA charters these boards.

  3. JP95inGA Avatar

    How can the Board and Sullivan be aligned philosophically two years ago, yet we have this today? Philosophies don’t change in two years. Was there misrepresentation on Sullivan’s part, lack of due diligence by the Board in selecting her, a rapid and significant change in strategic direction by the Board that Sullivan could not accept or simply failure to meet established goals? We are owed real answers.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Some news reports have it that when Teresa Sullivan was hired, she was specifically told NOT to undertake a strategic review because the school had just been through two and the community was tired of them.

    1. Those reports are based on what Sullivan wrote in her “Academic Strategy” memo to Dragas and Kington:

      “At the time of my appointment, I was explicitly instructed not to do a strategic plan for the academic program. The University had already conducted a series of strategic plans, and the faculty were said to be fatigued and discouraged by the lack of follow-through on those plans. For the last several years, the University of Virginia has been guided by the strategic plans, Virginia 2020 and the Commission on the Future of the University (COFU). These documents have served as a roadmap for the advancement of the university.”

      Note: She was referring here to the strategic plan for the academic program.

      Also, she wrote, “Since I arrived in August 2010, I have worked with the Rector and Visitors on planning for two other important functions of the University: the strategic plan for the Health Center and a strategic exercise to examine and benchmark our financial aid program, AccessUVa.”

      The most interesting phrase embedded in those quotes is this: faculty were “fatigued and discouraged by the lack of follow-through on those plans.”

      It’s one thing to have a plan, quite another to act upon it. That does not reflect especially well on the Casteen regime that preceded Sullivan.

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