Less than two years after her selection, the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors has accepted Teresa Sullivan’s resignation and is calling for a bold new leader who can resolve tough financial issues.
When Teresa Sullivan was chosen by a unanimous vote of the board of visitors, there were rave reviews. Rector John Wynne called her a person of integrity, experience and vision, while board member W. Heywood Fralin said, “She is as knowledgeable about the issues facing higher education as anyone I’ve met in the last 20 years. She will be an outstanding president in every respect.”
On Sunday, the curtain came down on Sullivan’s show, and the critics were not so kind. Rector Helen Dragas held a quickie news conference on the steps of the administration building to explain why the well-liked leader of UVA was leaving.
“We had a philosophical difference about the vision of the future of the university. We are living in a time of rapidly accelerating change in both academia as well as in healthcare. That decision has – excuse me – that environment has — we believe calls for a different approach to leadership. We know that the university has exceptional potential, and the board of visitors wants – believes that we need a bold, strategic, visionary leader to take us to the next level.”
Reporters asked Dragas to explain what had changed so much, in less than two years, to warrant Sullivan’s departure.
“There’s lots of news that you can read about the external environment. Can you be more specific? I believe I’ve answered the question.”
And she was equally evasive when asked when this decision had been reached:
“It’s been something that’s been evolving over a period of time, but I won’t speak to the specifics, and I do need to go to a 2 o’clock meeting, so thank you all for your time.”
Students, faculty, alumni and staff were notified by e-mail, and in a statement to deans and vice presidents, the board of visitors said, “We know this news is a great shock to the institution.” Still, the board offered only vague explanations. “We have calls internally for resolution of tough financial issues,” the statement said, citing declining federal support, state support that will be flat at best and pressures on health care payors.”
The president of the faculty senate at UVA, law professor George Cohen, was on vacation in San Diego when the e-mails began to fly. Cohen said he was greatly surprised:
“The faculty has been very supportive of President Sullivan. We’ve been very excited by the changes that she has implemented and the direction that she seemed to be going.”
And while he was aware of financial problems, Cohen added, he thought Sullivan was taking care of business.
“We just had a new provost who just came in in the fall, we have a new chief operating officer, and so we had a new administrative team, and we thought that there would be time for them to work toward a strategy for dealing with these issues.”
In its statement, the board of visitors listed a range of concerns: lagging pay for faculty and staff, the need to make star hires as senior professors retire, the possibility of expanding the university’s educational mission online and the need to effectively obtain gifts. UVA fell $400 million short of a $3 billion fundraising target last year.
Observers also note substantial turnover on the board. With new appointments every four years, nearly half of those who chose Sullivan are no longer there.
Rector Dragas said an interim president would be in place when students return this fall, and UVA would begin the search for a new president as soon as possible. Sullivan issued a statement acknowledging philosophical differences with the board and expressed gratitude to the faculty, students, alumni and administrators.
— Sandy Hausman