OK, Chop off My Head, I’m Defending Helen Dragas

Helen Dragas

by James A. Bacon

While Teresa Sullivan’s forced resignation came as a shock and surprise to many, the process that led up to it was not sudden. As Rector Helen Dragas stated yesterday during the BoV meeting:

I want to make clear that the Board had a formalized communications process with the President, involving ongoing discussions for an extended period of time on progress toward mutually agreed-upon strategic goals for the University. And we took this action only as a result of there being an overwhelming consensus of the Board to do so, and after all Board members were thoughtfully and individually engaged.

I have criticized Dragas for her handling of the Sullivan resignation, but in retrospect, I’m not sure how she could have handled it differently.

Let me pose a hypothetical question: If you’re the rector of the university and you have problems with the university president, how do you handle the situation?

You don’t make your concerns public… Just as Dragas did not.

You express public support even while you take corrective action privately… Just as Dragas did.

You don’t go public until after the president has resigned, and even then, you mute your criticisms to allow that person to leave with dignity…. Just as Dragas did.

Sullivan’s resignation may have come as a bolt out of the blue to the university community, but the conflict played out behind the scene for months. What’s remarkable is how effectively Dragas and other BoV members kept their reservations confidential rather than undermining Sullivan by leaking their concerns into the public domain. That is to the board’s credit.

I find it unfortunate to see how Sullivan’s supporters have begun the process of vilifying Dragas personally. (A good example appears in the previous post written by one of my illustrious co-bloggers.) It’s one thing to argue that Dragas was wrong to fire Sullivan, it’s another to paint her as rich and privileged (true but irrelevant), out of touch or, as the Blue Virginia blog has speculated, possibly engaged in a conspiracy to enrich an online-education venture backed by Goldman Sachs.

Yes, her justification for her actions have been frustratingly vague, leaving everyone thirsting for a better explanation. But is it really necessary to reveal all the gory details? Wouldn’t that just diminish Sullivan, a woman who has been a good steward of the university even if she’s not the transformational leader the BoV expected?

I think Dragas is doing the best she can in a very difficult situation.

Update: Mike Mulvilhill at CRT/Tanaka lists the major gaffs Dragas committed in handling the Sullivan resignation: lack of transparency, allowing rumors to fill the information void, and responding way too slowly. I have to admit, he’s right on every score. (Hat tip: Chris Bonney.)

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  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    This illustrious co-blogger believes that as a public officials, Dragas demands scrutiny. She has been amazingly non-transparent, which she has admitted. Her background is extremely relevant. Sullivan, by contrast, is an open book (pun intended in your online craze). You have put down Sullivan as just a plodding, “Business as Usual” college bureaucrat you castigate in blog post after blog post. Why shouldn’t Dragas deserve similar scrutiny. Could it be that in your built-in bias requires different levels of scrutiny if we are talking about a rich business executive?

    As a Virginia taxpayer and one with relatives who have ties to the school, I have every right to know the backgrounds of people who make such important decisions.

    You may not like it, but your Libertarian World View is not the point here.

  2. Peter, have you been bitten by any squirrels or raccoons lately? You might want to get it checked out.

    Sure, Dragas deserves scrutiny — but it’s her ideas and actions that deserve scrutiny. Just because she’s rich does not make her wrong.

    I have never attacked Sullivan personally. And I have never portrayed her as a plodding bureaucrat. She may be defending Business As Usual, but that doesn’t make her a plodding bureaucrat.

    Here’s what it would be like if I treated Sullivan like you treat Dragas. I’d make a big deal about her lifelong career as an academic and administrator, and talk about how she is captive to the academic mindset, and how she can’t get out of her academic group-think to think about the larger issues that Boards of Visitors have to think about. My observations may or may not be true, but they would be irrelevant. We should consider the merits of what she says and does, not who she is.

    I see no need to demonize Sullivan. She’s a person of good will doing the best she can. Why cannot you admit the same of Dragas? It’s fine to disagree with her. But why the need to revile her personally?

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    No squirrles or rabbits, but lots of ticks.

    Anyway, here is part of my “reviling” piece on Dragas from a June 15 post. (Don’t you read your own Website?)

    “Who is Dragas, anyway? According to business media articles, she is one of three daughters of a Greek immigrant who built a successful home construction firm operating in Virginia Beach and other parts of Hampton Roads. Helen Dragas started working part-time at the firm in its customer service section at age 13 and later attended U.Va., graduating with a bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs and economics in 1984. An MBA from the Darden School followed in 1988. Her husband is also a double Hoo grad, both College and Law.

    Dragas took over the construction firm in the late 1990s and in 2009 won a national trade magazine’s award for “America’s Best Builder.” Her typical products are simple starter homes of about 1,500 sq.ft. each that cost about $200,000 in the typical, car-centric, cul-de-sac neighborhoods that define suburban sprawl.

    In business, she defines herself as an “ultraconservative” in handling finances and even uses personal credit scores as a criterion for hiring a worker. “We have a very conservative way of managing our balance sheet,” she has said in interviews. “Emotional intelligence” is another trait she looks for in her employees. Her company has branched from residential into mixed use projects. The Dragas Co. received favorable publicity for replacing badly-made and unhealthy drywall imported from China that had been used in the condominiums it sold.”

    As for her lack of transparency, here she is on YouTube, clearly and openly explaining everything (blog readers, please watch and judge for yourself if you wish):


  4. DJRippert Avatar

    Well, it took 8 days but apparently the General Assembly has found its voice:


    Our elected officials have instituted a process whereby management of our public institutions of higher learning is auctioned off to the highest bidder. Following up on this dereliction of duty, our elected officials then provide no oversight of the process and allow shocking decisions to be taken with no discussion of those decisions. Their appointed leader (Ms. Dragas) can declare that Virginia’s flagship university is facing an “existential crisis” without so much as a peep from our current or former governors as to how this so-called crisis occurred.

    Meanwhile, our media parses the words of both Ms. Dragas and Ms. Sullivan without ever asking any of our supposedly accountable elected officials what is going on.

    The MWAA has nothing on The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    Peter and Jim:

    Both of you are missing the point. Why is this “existential crisis” news to our elected officials? Why isn’t even one of our elected officials standing up and saying, “Here is the debate and here are the choices.”?

    Is it because NONE of elected officials have even the slightest idea what’s going on at UVA?

    Richmond is the problem.

  6. Fair question. At what point does McDonnell step in to clear the air. I sincerely doubt he wants to get involved personally — this thing is a tar baby. But maybe his Sec. of Education should be paying attention.

  7. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Yes, exactly. And that’s why the Governor needs to address this problem. That is define the problem, and tell us why he is confident its being properly addressed, and why we got to this point before being blindsided.

  8. chris bonney Avatar
    chris bonney

    One wants to believe the Board of Visitors. Unfortunately, nearly all of Virginia’s public college and university boards have become highly politicized playgrounds. This will happen as long as politics are as polarized as they have become and as long as governors are appointing the boards.
    Ms. Dragas and her fellow board members are trying to run a university as they would a business. Universities might need to be a bit more like businesses. But they are still fundamentally a very different businesses, something people who haven’t been involved in academic administration may have a hard time understanding.
    But beyond that, any sharp business person who’s had so much as a hour of professional public relations crisis counseling could tell you that the way this was handled was unnecessarily disruptive and disrespectful to President Sullivan, the predictable U. Va. stakeholders and to Virginians at large.
    The damage incurred is not just to President Sullivan (and the rector and vice rector), but also to the future credibility and reputation of the University. High value donors such as Jane Batten ($170 million) and Hunter Smith ($60 million, I believe it is) are questioning their future engagement. Hugh value faculty members are contemplating jumping ship. It’s going to take quite a bit of work to clean this mess up.

    It’s very hard to see

  9. WahooLaw Avatar

    I expect that Dragas is doing the best *she* can do. That’s why U.Va., an excellent university, needs a governance system that puts people with a track record of proven excellence – not mediocrities with no claim to fame other than inherited wealth – at the head of the board.

    Dragas almost certainly meant well. She also is right that disruptive change is headed straight at schools such as U.Va., and will require rapid and sweeping changes in the way U.Va. fulfills its mission. She would also be right if she were to think that higher ed in the US is in a bit of an existential funk, and needs a reboot.

    None of that translates to the personnel issue being handled properly. For starters, an actual board meeting where the issue was discussed, where opinions could be exchanged across the whole group, and where Sullivan could have presented a defense of her strategy would have been a better process. The goal should not have been to ‘fire Sullivan,’ but to have in place the best governance for the The University for the near and moderate term. Secretive one on one meetings with no input from the principal affected party is not the way you, or anyone else, would want their future determined.

    As for attacking Dragas personally – it’s unfortunate for her, but one of the issues that needs to be confronted directly is that U.Va. has selected a mode of governance that allows mediocrities to ascend to the top of the pyramid. To make that point, you have to make note of the fact that Dragas is, in fact, a mediocrity with no apparent ticket to the game other than her father’s money. It’s not a gratuitous personal attack, but one that points out what can and has happened, at great cost to the institution, under the current system. For the record , it’s not just Dragas who personifies the problem – compare the bios of those on the board at U.Va. with the equivalent boards at Yale, Harvard, Chicago, Stanford, Duke or Princeton (what U.Va. aspires to be) – you come away with the sense that U.Va. is small time and parochial in comparison.

    What Dragas is about to find out, I believe, is that she was a sacrificial pawn in this whole gambit. Sullivan is gone, and the fiscal powers behind the scene can select a president that suits their vision better. Dragas, as a female, was useful in defusing perceptions that the Wahoo old boys club was expelling a female from the clubhouse. She also was useful as the target of hostility for the move, which for the most part has not been passed on to Paul Tudor Jones and the other donors who manipulated the board. Now that her usefulness has expired, she will be encouraged to step down, and will be free to go back to building condominiums, her reputation forever tainted and any aspirations for elective public service at an end. I wonder if she was savvy enough to see her villification and dismissal as the likely outcome if there was any opposition.

  10. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Perhaps we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. As Wahoo Law suggests, the mechanics used by the BoV in dealing with the challenges confronting the University, and the ways it reached it decision to remove President Sullivan tells us a good deal more about the Board than about Dr. Sullivan. And the Boards execution of its decision compounds the dangers that UVA now faces. Surely too, the Boards stated rationale of the President’s removal and vision for the future of this great University was so laden with cliches, and expressed in such simplistic terms, as to suggest the resignation of its leader Ms. Dragas. The doubts now cast on her qualifications to lead a great university, and the animosities she has brought down upon herself and the board, are now too great for her to overcome.

    This is not to conclude that Dr. Sullivan should be reinstated. Nor does it relegate Ms. Dragas to the status of villain. However flawed, she (along with Dr. Sullivan) may indeed be a hero. The chronic and pervasive problem with most all Boards (whether non profit and otherwise) is their systemic failure to act with resolution and courage, to confront tough problems and act decisively. Despite all the apparent BoV shortcomings in trying to work thought UVA’s challenges with the obviously talented Dr. Sullivan, and in Ms. Dragas methods in leading the Board to a decision and executing it, it is nevertheless true that the overwhelming majority of the BoV made a very hard decision. And in so doing they put themselves at substantial risk in an effort to deal with very difficult challenges that threaten The University. I believe that the Board’s action is far more likely to be one of courageous one, rather that one driven by cowardice, greed, or stupidity. The fact that Dr. Sullivan was an outstanding University Provost and indeed proved herself to likely be wonderful University President if the times were normal times, does not mean she proved to be the best person to lead the University in its current perilous circumstances. Or its present governance setup. The current interim President may, however, be such a person. Alternatively, if Dr. Sullivan is reinstated, the Governor should put in place the means to assure that the concerns raised by the Board are properly addressed, and the skills of the current interim President are fully brought the bear on the challenges confronting UVA.

    Ms. Dragas needs to step down. The Governor needs to take strong action. To state the problem and his vision towards its solution, including his putting strong new leaders to the board and within the University administration. Ms. Sullivan needs to be reinstated within the context of the Governors action. Or the current interim President should be made permanent. Or some combination of the above. Otherwise, to start all over at this point will be a long, arduous and perilous task indeed.

  11. larryg Avatar

    I’m mostly on board with Wahoo Law but would emphasize that people in Dragas position are expect to make change without it turning into something that is perceived as a personal difference between her and Sullivan.

    Dragas is further undercut by not having a strong board backing her up publically.

    These two things negate whatever good intentions she had.

    The unanswered question is did she take it on as a personal goal without seeing the need for visible board support?

    this still smells like animus between Dragas and Sullivan and that not good.

    We may get some answers her as Sullivan has filed suit and usually the “discovery” phase allows getting things like emails.

  12. jlanderson Avatar

    Bacon, you’re beyond redemption on this matter. Dragas, Kington et.al. have done deep, possibly lasting damage to the University, and you defend her actions and her rationale.


    As the Cavalier Daily emails show, she and Kington are nothing more than rich dilettantes who think their wealth makes them experts everything.

    Sullivan is right in her incremental approach to change. That’s how universities, institutions with centuries of history, do it. Want rapid change? Go to the corporate world. But be careful there, too just ask Reed Hastings of Netflix.

  13. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka



  14. saunders Avatar

    For several days after Sullivan was fired the call was for transparency. If the board is going to fire a popular president because they think she is heading in the wrong direction they have a responsibility to tell the community what direction they want to be heading. When they did not do that, everyone assumed the worst. I liked the way Sullivan was taking the University, but I would have been open to considering another point of view. Had I been presented with one.

  15. Richard Avatar

    James – you make a good defense, and we do need to give Ms. Dragas a bit of a break, because once she and her allies on the BOV acted, they’ve done about the best they could. The problem that the BOV has with their approach to the firing of Ms. Sullivan reflect their business and financial backgrounds, where if you decide to “change direction” you do so by firing the CEO (and paying them big bucks so they won’t squirm too much) and hiring a new one, and this must be quick, and decisive and you don’t want to run down the company (that would alarm lenders or shareholders) as you do so. You don’t say for example that the company is in terrible financial shape – you say stuff like “difference of opinion,” or “change in direction” or other such meaningless but non-distressing words. What the BOV didn’t take into account is that it would have to answer to professors (many tenured) students and alumni, among whom there are many world-class arguers and politicians. If you’ve every been involved in a faculty argument, or an argument with a professor, you know what I mean. The BOV apparently decided it would take on these various constituencies head on, rather than work through them on a consensual basis – in retrospect that appears to be a miscalculation. However on the other hand (and I am one of those unusual people with 3 hands), maybe the slow, consensual approach wouldn’t have worked because these constituencies were too entrenched and recalcitrant to consider the changes that the BOV believed were necessary. As Ms. Dragas continues to assert, we’ll see.

    1. I heard a former university president today make the (serious) argument that Dragas wasn’t tough enough. When she fired Sullivan she should have given a full explanation of how she had fallen short of board expectations, especially in her unwillingness to put in the necessary time to cultivate donors, R&D funders and state government. I suspect Dragas was trying to spare Sullivan’s feelings and reputation. Big mistake.

      You are right, too, that the BoV tried to apply corporate governance techniques to an academic setting. Another big mistake.

  16. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    A former university president saying they weren’t tough enough?
    Are we just sort of expected to accept that without more information?

    The BOV tried to apply corporate governance techniques? Hasn’t that been what you have been advocating all along?

    Do tell, with all of your high-level (and anonymous) contacts. Otherwise, please explain why we should listen to you.

    1. Sorry, Peter, you’ll just have to take my word for it. I wasn’t taking notes and he probably assumed that I wouldn’t quote him, so I cannot in good conscience mention his name. If he had spoken on the record, the conversation might have arisen to the level of a real-live blog post.

      Since when did you start objecting to the use of unnamed sources anyway?

      Perhaps I should have added that the former president also praised Sullivan for being “brilliant” in managing internal issues.

  17. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    So this unnamed source says Sullivan is “brilliant” at managing “internal issues” but deserves to be shot in the head?

    I hope I never have to work for you. Check that. Already have!

  18. larryg Avatar

    the very best way to get rid of Sullivan would be to have 10+ BOV members clearly articulating the problem; there might be disagreement but there would be no doubt that the BOV as a body had no doubts.

    To not have that strong concurrence leave Dragas swinging in the wind.

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