Sullivan Steps Down as UVa President.

Hmmm. I wonder what this is all about. The University of Virginia board of visitors announced this morning that Teresa Sullivan is stepping down as university president after a tenure of only two years. The board will hold an emergency closed-door meeting at 2 p.m. to “consider amending the contract of a University employee,”according to media reports.

Both the University board and Sullivan made routine expressions of respect and appreciation for one another but neither was forthcoming with an explanation. In a brief statement Sullivan indicated “a philosophical difference of opinion” with the board. A statement by Board Chair Helen Dragas suggested the same thing:

For the past year, the board has had ongoing discussions about the importance of developing, articulating and acting on a clear and concrete strategic vision. “In a rapidly changing and highly pressurized external environment in both health care and in academia,” Dragas said, “we believe that the University needs to remain at the forefront of change.”

Whatever the difference in philosophy, the problem does not seem to be emanating from the Governor’s Office. Governor Bob McDonnell praised Sullivan for helping advance his higher education agenda:

Through her leadership, Virginia added nearly 1,000 new student slots and recently enacted the lowest yearly tuition increase in over a decade. Having the University of Virginia play such a leading role in higher education reform was immensely helpful in ensuring that this work to expand access and affordability all across our higher education system would be successful and broadly embraced by all state institutions.

Does anyone have any insight?


Update: For a more up-to-date analysis of what the Sullivan resignation means, read “An Existential Threat.”

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  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Sullivan is highly respected as a scholar and an administrator. My guess is that she didn’t go for the steam-roller fund-raising methods and conflicts that Casteen got into and probably wasn’t too keen on the privatization idea.

    Given her national rep, she might have been a little too high altitude for the Ole Virginny types on the board.

  2. jlanderson Avatar

    Whatever the the internal reasons for this decision, I am troubled by the rector’s comments about “online education” made in a call to University deans and top administrators and released by the PR office just now.

    If this is the source of the “philosophical differences of opinion” the president mentioned, then I am deeply worried for the future of the University. “Learning” via a broadband hookup is NO substitute for being in a classroom in Grounds engaging with fellow students and some of the best faculty minds in the world. We alumni are going to have to make our voices heard LOUD and CLEAR if this is what is going down in Charlottesville.

    Is it money? Does the BofV want to restructure the University in such as a way that Sullivan felt strongly enough about to resign? Dragas and the rest of the Visitors need to be very open and TRUTHFUL with the University community in the coming days, or this thing is going to turn very nasty very quickly.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Also could be backlash against her for standing up to Ken Cuccinelli’s rape of academic freedom in the global warming fiasco.

    1. jlanderson Avatar

      Mr. Galuszka, I seriously doubt it is as anything as pedestrian as that. Presidents of the University are not dismissed after barely two years on the job for such asinine reasons.

  4. larryg Avatar

    re: online education – I think UVA has a choice and an opportunity. They can grab hold and be in the forefront of what is inevitably or they can hold on to the past.

    A kid in rural Va could start out with a broadband link to UVa and then ultimately be on the campus or any variation of that – a modern university not a hide-bound one.

    Offering online does not mean not offering the other traditions. It’s, in addition to ….

    Personally, I’d like to see UVA transform, reinvent and be a leader in education.

    I do not know who had which position. Was Sullivan or the BofV pointed towards “online”?

    1. jlanderson Avatar

      Larryg, online education is fine for post-grad training or technical certification classes, but the essence of a university experience is being on Grounds, in a classroom with your fellow students and your professor. The intellectual give and take, the spur of the moment delving into topics not wholly related, but brought to mind by the lecture and the subsequent debate and Q&A. This is how truly world class institutions have done it for centuries … And continue to do so to this day. I’m wary for what the future holds for the University.

      And as to who held which views regarding online instruction, I have no idea. That was the line in the rector’s news release about her discussions with vice presidents and deans that I keyed in on.

  5. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    It could very well be the push to online classes.
    As for big name public universities in Virginia losing their leaders for pedestrian reasons, look what happened to the head of William & Mary a few years back. Had to do with a crucifix and being too liberal.
    I wouldn’t say that UVa is all that above it all.

  6. DJRippert Avatar

    UVA has the best Board of Visitors that money can buy.

    Here’s part of an article about Bob McDonnell’s first four appointments to the BoV:

    “All four of McDonnell’s first UVa Board of Visitors appointees are major contributors to McDonnell’s political action committee or political campaigns,a ccording to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

    Craig gave $25,000 to McDonnell’s Opportunity Virginia PAC on June 4 and donated $33,301 worth of cash and in-kind contributions to McDonnell’s gubernatorial campaign.

    Gilliam gave $25,000 to McDonnell’s PAC in January and previously gave $105,000 to McDonnell’s campaign for governor.

    Johnson contributed $50,000 to McDonnell’s campaign for governor.

    And Kington gave a total $98,632 to McDonnell’s campaigns for governor and attorney general.”

  7. DJRippert Avatar

    I spent four wonderful years at UVA and walked away with a diploma that has served me very well in the 31 years since I earned it.

    However, I have always been frustrated by the elitist mentality at UVA. Let me provide some clarity:

    1. The University of Virginia is a university, not The University.
    2. UVA is an excellent public university. However, it is not the best academic university in the United States nor is it the best academically rated public university. There are 24 better universities in the US including two higher rated public schools – Berkeley and UCLA.
    3. In many important areas UVA is far down the rankings. For example, on a global level, UVA does not rank in the Top 50 engineering schools even though 12 American public universities do rank in the top 50.

  8. DJRippert Avatar

    As for offering online courses … I find the argument against that pretty hard to understand.

    Two trade schools named Harvard and MIT have decided to make their courses available online …

    Here is the most important part of that article:

    “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”

  9. DJRippert Avatar

    There is one area where UVA is really world class – undergraduate business.

    Businessweek ranked UVA as #2 in the US for undergraduate business.

    Maybe UVA should focus on what they do well – undergraduate business and let MIT (#2 globally) teach engineering.

    I don’t care whether the students get their MIT lessons while they are “on the grounds” (English translation: on campus) or not.

    I just don’t see a big reason for UVA to continue spending money on the engineering program when they aren’t very good at it and the #2 university in the world gives the lessons away for free.

  10. larryg Avatar

    well I think online education is key to the future of Universities like UVA myself.

    Again.. it’s not an either/or proposition and to exclude online education as “something we don’t do”… is basically going to deny the University access to many, many excellent future high school prospects who might well get to know UVA through online course content and then decide to physically attend.

    Consider it a duty to ALL kids in Va to have the opportunity to virtually “attend” UVA.

    I’m not particularly impressed with the idea that the best college education is the one that one receives by spending 4 years on campus. It’s a unique experience for sure that most people carry with them the rest of their lives but it’s not the only way to make one’s way in life.

  11. larryg Avatar

    re: ” … but it’s not the only way to make one’s way in life.” –

    Higher Ed is too damned costly these days. While Universities like UVA can claim they have not increased in a while, – they basically play the same game because one or two will increase their rates then the rest will cite them as their own justification – as if they have no responsibility to ever been accountable in anything more than a cursory manner as to what the constitute parts are that make up their own cost of a credit-hour and other costs.

    Public universities, in reality, are no more accountable for their constitute costs than Proctor Gamble is for theirs.

  12. DJRippert Avatar


    The big question is why any university should endeavor to teach every course. Back in the days before computers, video links, etc a university like UVA either taught the course on campus or the students had no way to take the course. This is especially true in Virginia where the universities are geographically separated from one another.

    The “winning hand” for UVA might be to let students take computer science courses online from MIT (or, at least, based on the MIT curriculum) and teach things like undergraduate business directly. UVA could trade or sell their undergraduate business courses for use at other universities.

    This would definitely reduce the cost of providing an education at UVA – even if all the students remained on campus.

    Encapsulating the courseware as software immediately makes the lessons available to people unaffiliated with any university. People in the workaday world can advance their understanding of important subjects as a way to stay relevant in the job market.

    Finally, using pre-packaged courses should “level the playing field” among Virginia’s universities. I have been calling for a Computer Science / Math degree with a concentration in Data Science to be offered in Virginia universities. The time and cost required to build such a program is substantial with traditional methods. However, such a program could be constructed rather quickly with a combination of on campus and virtual classes.

  13. larryg Avatar

    some things probably are better taught and learned in person but many things including the basics and fundamentals can be taught to many via online …saving the instruction budget for those things that do benefit from more direct interaction between instructor and student.

    Here’s my prediction – Much Higher Ed is not going to seriously consider changes including online until the enrollment trendlines start declining – then they’ll make those decisions as forced responses after the fact rather than embracing them as part of a cogent strategy BEFORE enrollment start declining. The ones that work on the front end are going to be much better off.

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