By Peter Galuszka

The putsch had all the markings of Stalin-era intrigue. Select members of the Politburo had whispered for weeks that a key and popular leader had to go. She didn’t fit the Inner Circle’s philosophies. She was too prominent and her “vision” was too slow-moving and dogmatically out of step. Finally, without her knowing about the coup, she was summoned by three Politburo members to an unscheduled meeting. The trigger was pulled.

No, it didn’t happen in Moscow, but in Charlottesville, near the beautiful “Lawn” grounds of the University of Virginia, Mr. Jefferson’s University.

The victim was Teresa Sullivan, one of the most respected academics in the U.S. who had become the first female president of the University of Virginia after being  the provost of the University of Michigan. In her two years at U.Va. she had been a breath of fresh air by reaching out to students, faculty and researchers by trying to keep the best traditions of university education alive.

Not according to the school’s Board of Visitors, however. They are 16 politically-appointed men and women whose claim to fame is typically business success and large campaign contributions to various governors. Hardly any has a strong academic background. The board’s rector, Helen E. Dragas, who did the dirty work on Sullivan, is a rich real estate developer from Virginia Beach.

Dragas and Mark J. Kington, a former business partner of U.S. Senator and former governor Mark Warner, called Sullivan to a meeting Friday and asked for her resignation. Sullivan gave it the next day. Three BOV members accepted it. The entire board never voted on her ouster, although there are whispers that there had been secret emails flying for weeks before. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell insists he didn’t know anything about it until June 6, two days before the call for resigning came.

Sullivan’s fate stunned the university community which had seemed very happy that a woman as intelligent and personable as Sullivan was their leader. It also is not clear exactly why she was fired. Dragas had issued a vague statement that somehow that Sullivan’s ouster resulted from long-standing philosophical differences with the board, something Sullivan acknowledged. Dragas later said the board’s action would be vindicated with no hint how.

Yet there has been no adequate explanation about why this happened – odd for a locale that is supposed to celebrate transparency. Sullivan took the reins at Virginia’s most prestigious university at a very difficult time. Her predecessor had been John Casteen, a famous fund-raiser and bricks-and-mortar builder but little else.

Because of the weak economy, Sullivan’s initial fundraising efforts fell short. The state was giving schools less money while browbeating them not to raise tuition. She needed to replace a large number of retiring faculty. She tried to expand U.Va.s research ties with pharmaceutical firms and wanted to emphasize one-on-one teaching relationships with undergraduates. She had to manage two very different organizations – the university itself and the fast-growing health system.

There very well could be a political aspect to her ousting. Conservatives have a vision of online teaching, in which schools cut back on supposed “waste and inefficiency” by making their classes available online, sometimes through for-profit companies they back. Traditionalist professors worry that too much online teaching will ruin quality instruction. It could be that the board thought Sullivan was moving too slowly on turning U.Va. into DeVry or the University of Phoenix.

There’s also a war on research of topics considered politically suspect, such as Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli’s hounding of a former U.Va. climatologist for his work on climate change, which the hard right denies. Sullivan beat back Cuccinelli’s legal probes and may be paying the price.

Lastly, there are two dangerous attitudes confronting Sullivan and other college presidents.  One, perpetrated by the right-wing, is that the academic community is a cabal of lazy, ineffective and intolerant hippies left over from the 1960s which must be rooted out. The other is that top public schools have to somehow get ready for the privatization that some consider inevitable. To achieve this, a big public college needs a fundraiser as its leader, not a serious intellectual.

Such is the tragedy at Mr. Jefferson’s University.

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  1. larryg Avatar

    yup. the more they pull back the covers..the stinkier it gets. 3 out of how many did the deed and the rest of them are feckless cave dwellers?

    time for the 3 to go… and the Gov himself should demonstrate some leadership and ask for THEIR resignations. This kind of foolishness only reinforces the narrative that Virginia is ruled by unelected and unaccountable elites.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “This kind of foolishness only reinforces the narrative that Virginia is ruled by unelected and unaccountable elites.”.

      My only quibble with Larry’s sentence is that “narrative” should be replaced by “reality”.

      The governor of the state didn’t know about this until two days before it happened?

      Are you kidding me?

  2. Neil Haner Avatar
    Neil Haner

    I’m not going to say it was handled perfectly, but the more I think about it, the more I’m okay with this.

    Firing the President of a major university is never going to be a clean situation. There is no way to do it that doesn’t generate a large amount of curiosity, criticism, and debate. The BOV was in a tough spot.

    We have to accept the possibility that maybe, just maybe, she really wasn’t the right long-term fit for the job. Running a major university involves so much more than just directing the faculty and students.

    UVA’s President assumes responsibility for not just the traditional academics, but also nationally ranked Business, Law, and Medical School (the last of which includes being the de facto CEO of the region’s largest hospital).

    UVA’s President assumes the role of chief fundraiser for a multi-billion dollar operation. With Richmond continuing to offer less financial support every year, the pressure to supplement that money with private donations grows, especially with the increased focus on tuition levels.

    UVA’s President assumes the responsibility of a massive budget, balancing needs of dozens of different programs, weighing competing interests across the campus in the process of doling out very limited resources.

    And, lastly, UVA’s President must set the University’s long term vision, which includes degree program offerings, enrollment expansion, facilities construction and modernization, teaching mediums (the online debate), and a host of other factors.

    Was she popular with the students and faculty? Sure! But popularity is not the metric by which the position needs to be judged.

    The BOV is doing the right thing by playing its cards close to the vest here. Yes, the public is going to clamor for explanations. But the BOV is not obligated, and should not, provide them all. They are taking the high road and letting Sullivan leave with her dignity in tact.

    The University will move on and this will largely be smoothed over with time. Nichol’s termination at W&M was far more contentious, the man went out kicking and screaming, and by the following term the vast majority of the students and faculty had returned to life-as-normal. Assuming the BOV can make a timely and quality selection for Sullivan’s replacement (and I can’t imagine they didn’t have candidates in mind before the trigger was ever pulled), this too shall blow over.

    Bottom line: The BOV is the group ultimately responsible for the long-term success of the university, and if after two years of Sullivan’s tenure they had good reason to believe she wasn’t the right one for the difficult job (for failing to live up to any of the numerous responsibilities listed above), then I’d much rather they rectify the situation sooner rather than later.

    It was never going to be pretty. But the hard choices in life rarely are.

  3. larryg Avatar

    and if the BOV made a wrong/bad decision, they are accountable?


  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Neil Haner,
    You’re Ok with this? OK with what? If you can’t say why this happened how can you be OK with it? Makes no sense.

    1. Neil Haner Avatar
      Neil Haner

      I’m okay with the BOV making the decision to remove her. I’m okay with this, even in the absence of much explanation, because the BOV exists to make hard decisions regarding the long term direction of the University, and I trust them to do so. Why do I trust them? Why shouldn’t I? It’s a world-class institution that has, despite the occasional minor blemish unavoidable to any major organization, only improved with each passing decade.

      At the end of the day, you have to decide if you trust the BOV or not. We’re not going to get all the answers, the public rarely does. I ask you to name on high-profile firing where all of the dirty laundry was aired after the fact.

      For a minute, assume with me that the BOV was justified in removing her. What good does it do to drag the woman’s name through the mud by calling her capabilities into question? By all accounts, she was a fine human being, one who gets to leave this job with her reputation in good condition. But if there were, in fact, valid reasons for her removal (for example – and I’m just spitballing here: she was mismanaging the hospital, she was a substandard fundraiser, she had private personal/legal/financial troubles which possibly compromised her standing, or, as was offered, she didn’t envision a 2040 version of the university similar to that envisioned by the Board members), isn’t it best to leave it as it is?

      I’m giving the BOV the benefit of the doubt because they’ve given me no reason not to. It’s not about politics; the BOV is as bipartisan as it’s even been – half the appointees by Kaine and half by McDonnell. It really doesn’t seem to be a personal vendetta (there’d be far more mud-slinging if it were, and both sides are handling it professionally at this point).

      So I say again, if the BOV, the folks appointed by Richmond to be the ultimate decision makers for the University, has decided she wasn’t right for the job, then it’s their duty to take care of it in a timely manner. If they choose to use discretion in the process, so be it.

      I feel awful for Sullivan. By all accounts she seemed like a great educator, researcher, and human being. That doesn’t mean she was the right person for this job as UVA’s lead administrator.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        Mr. Haner:

        Terry Sullivan accepted a public position when she took the reins at UVA. She had to know that she sacrificed some personal privacy in accepting that position. A termination for secret reasons is not compatible with a free and open society.

        Since you write eloquently about UVA, I’ll speculate that you attended that university. If so, please consider the following quote from its founder:

        “There is not a truth existing which I fear… or would wish unknown to the whole world.”.
        Thomas Jefferson

        Finally, if the Superintendent of the United States Air Force Academy was suddenly relieved of duty by the Secretary of the Air Force – would you expect an explanation? If no explanation were forthcoming, would you expect the president to comment on the matter? Would you expect reporters to demand comment?

  5. larryg Avatar

    ” “It’s really too early to judge this decision,’’ Dragas said. “This decision should be judged after a new president is installed.””


    is she so sure that the BOV will do any better job of vetting than they did with Sullivan? This sounds like the height of arrogance to me.

    what do you do when the people in charge of picking a President are themselves a bunch of screw-ups?

    I’m not saying they are. I’m asking how you judge their performance and take appropriate actions if their performance is lacking?

    They held Sullivan accountable. How is the BOV being held accountable?

  6. Peter, you raise some legitimate issues but you weaken the case by dragging Cuccinelli into the picture. You have *zero* evidence connecting the Cuccinelli-Michael Mann gambit with Sullivan’s resignation. Zero. The idea that Dragas and Kington, both Democrats, would carry water for a conservative Republican AG is beyond ludicrous.

    As for online teaching, I don’t think it’s only “conservatives” who are worrying about the disruptive impact it will have on higher ed — especially when the likes of Harvard and MIT are jumping into the pool. Online education is spreading like wildfire through the business world, and it’s making inroads in traditional academia. The UVa board and administration would be utter fools to ignore the potential impact. That’s not to say they should rush in and compete with Phoenix and DeVry. But it is to say they’d darned well better have plan… which, apparently, has not been forthcoming.

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    At the moment there isn’t evidence of a Cuccinelli tie, but I can’t think of another major university in the country that has been dragged through this kind of politically-driven dogmatic mess. If I were a top-ranked academic (not from Ole Virginiy), I’d think twice about going to UVA given the climate.
    Also, you have *ZERO* evidence that Dragas “gets it,” as you said in your typical sweeping overstatement in your first blog on this. “Gets” what? We don’t know yet.

  8. What is the correlation of hours spent teaching and hours spent researching with compensation? What percent of UVA’s budget is spent on teaching now versus 20 or 30 years ago?
    How have costs increased above the increases in per capita income? Why?
    Academic freedom. End of discussion.

  9. Darrell Avatar

    Online learning doesn’t come cheap. Software buys isn’t a one time thing. I deal with learning ware that was developed up to twenty or more years ago. Why? Because it was a one time shot contract with no follow up maintenance funding. Try getting an obsolete Windows program to work with newer systems with no development money. Then add in realistic simulations and dynamic security requirements. And that’s teaching courses where learning objectives are carved in stone.

    In a world where the faculty changes textbooks faster than they change underwear… well… Good luck with that.

  10. jlanderson Avatar

    Online education is simply not for a REAL university that purportedly wants to educate its students.

    That said, I believe the BofV owes the University community a clear statement as to what the “philosophical differences of opinion” were. They were obviously of a serious enough nature to force out the president. Faculty, staff, students and the public in general deserve to know what direction the Visitors want to take the University.

    As an alumnus, I demand to know. And I’m not going to give anyone the benefit of the doubt in this one. The University is too important.

    1. DJRippert Avatar


      Is it fair to assume that do not count Harvard, MIT and Stanford as REAL universities that want to educate their students? If so, you drank far too much of The University’s Cool Aid. The antidote to an overdose of Mr. Jefferson’s punch is taking one of the online courses.

      As far as you point about “demanding to know” the details of this situation – I could not agree more.

      1. jlanderson Avatar

        Mr. Rippert: I’m talking about the online education that is viewed by bean counters as a substitute to providing an intellectually charged setting on campus for teaching and learning.Look at the Phoenixes, DeVry’s and Liberty University’s out there.

        Now, if online education is viewed as a COMPLEMENT to, not a SUBSTITUTE for, in-classroom education, I think there’s a role for it. The Harvard/MIT and Stanford programs sound intriguing, but you don’t hear anyone talking about utilizing them in order to cut costs.

        And the BofV owes the commonwealth and the University community a much better explanation of why it did what it did. If the “philosophical differences” are so great that they affect the very nature and future of the University, they damned well had better reach out to the community and build as much buy-in as possible. Actions like this only create fear and paranoia by those of us out of the political loop.

  11. larryg Avatar

    It’s not so much WHAT they did, it’s HOW they did it. The blame for HOW this was done sits squarely on the shoulders of the BOV as does their decision to hire this woman 2 yrs ago based on THEIR vetting of her.

    This is a reflection of the BOV, not the person they fired.

    re: “real” school and textbooks that change often

    online content can be changed quickly and the new version is available immediately.

    I just don’t buy the “real” school idea as the ONLY option for higher education.

    It is an elitist concept and this is the reason why, in part, you have an elitist BOV and an imperious way of doing business.

    If we insist on freezing UVA in the past while Universities like MIT and CalTech adapt to the times, UVA is going to end up as an irrelevant artifact.

    The irony here is that “education” is all about a world that is always moving and always advancing and we have people who think of the institution as being a “museum” of learning rather than an integral part of the economy.

  12. DJRippert Avatar

    OK, I am going to make a bet. And it’s a bet that will warm Jim Bacon’s heart.

    Terry Sullivan was a leading spokesperson for a university’s right to take tuition and fees from paying students and use those tuition and fee payments to offer scholarships to poorer students who need the assistance to go to college.

    Bob McDonnell and the Republicans in Virginia tried (successfully, I think) to limit this practice. They (correctly, in my opinion) felt that allowing university presidents to over-charge tuitions on some students in order to fund others was a form of taxation by an un-elected official.

    Ms. Sullivan was outspoken in her defense of the “right” of university presidents to do this.

    If I had to bet on a “philosophical difference of opinion” – I’d look more at this issue than online teaching.

    Just a hunch.

  13. larryg Avatar

    If the Gov is involved in this decision in any way, shape or form… for political reasons, … this could well be … very bad….. but my suspects are that when that kind of thing happens (and it does), the people that do it are exceptionally careful to do it in a way that there are no fingerprints that can be followed back….

    the fact that this firing was reported as having been accomplished by 3 of the BOV with implications that there was not a full board vote.. is troubling if true and it would have some serious implications with respect to board process.

    something stinks in Sheboygan on process and it’s not cheese.

  14. larryg Avatar

    excellent link! thanks.

    re: online

    UVA should set up a high quality system that provides opportunity for those who cannot afford UVA or can afford it if some of the courses are online.

    Provide the education opportunities that benefit people and worry more about the quality than whether offering such courses might “tarnish” you image.

    Show people that your core concern and mission is education opportunity for as many people who would better their lives by accessing it.

    You could stipulate that some percentage had to be traditional bricks/mortar courses or similar.

    The current fears are ridiculous. UVA is already offering “distance learning” with remote sites… online content only further enhances physical distance learning.

    Seek to provide for the needs of people and your reputation will be enhanced not degraded.

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