Sullivan restructured the administration last year by hiring two new V-Ps, John Simon as provost and Michael Strine as chief operating officer.
Sullivan and Dragas at a recent ribbon-cutting.
An alleged clash between UVA President Teresa Sullivan and the Board of Visitors has resulted in Sullivan's ouster after less than two years in office, leaving faculty and staff at the University in shock. However, details emerging from defensive-sounding Board members suggest that the departure was less a mutual agreement and more of a palace coup orchestrated by alumni and friends of the Darden School.
"We are puzzled and dismayed," says UVA Law professor George Cohen, who, like most other UVA faculty, received the news in a morning email on Sunday, June 10, mere hours before a press conference by the head of the Board of Visitors announced the news to the public.
If it at first seemed like a joke, it was one that had already been made.
Indeed, as an April Fool's spoof in 2011, the satirical Yellow Journal at UVA ran a front page story about Sullivan stepping down after six months, with fake comments from faculty members. Sullivan's legacy will be defined "less by what happened," said a mock Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics, "than by what didn't happen during her tenure."
But this time it wasn't a joke. And, according to numerous sources, the forced resignation came as a surprise even to Sullivan, who, according to a report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was told on Friday, June 8, in a meeting with Board Rector Helen Dragas, a Tidewater-area real estate developer and Darden grad, that the Board had enough votes to remove her. Faced with the prospect of a board fight, Sullivan chose to resign.
Located adjacent to the Law School on Massie Road, and anchored by Saunders Hall, the campus, designed by New York-based Robert A.M. Stern Architects, has come under fire for being "faux Jeffersonian." Regardless of the quality of architectural design, it is an elite MBA factory, churning out about 300 grads each year, who've paid around $50,000 annual tuition but who often go on to make millions as CEOs and high ranking politicians (former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is one prominent grad). Some of that wealth flows back to the school in the form of donations, and, it appears, some alums wield tremendous influence over their alma mater.
Rector Dragas remained tight-lipped during the Sunday afternoon press conference, refusing to divulge specific reasons for forcing Sullivan out before excusing herself to vote along with only two other members of the Board's Executive Committee, Hunter Craig and another Darden alumnus, vice-rector Mark Kington. However, details have begun to emerge, and outrage has only grown, particularly after yet another high profile Darden alumnus sent an email in the wake of the announcement revealing that he'd been working on "this project" with Dragas for several weeks at the behest of "two important Virginia alums."
As reported by the Times-Dispatch, which obtained a copy of the email by Darden School Foundation chair Peter Kiernan, the Darden official attempts to calm anxious Dardenites over the suddenness of the decision by assuring recipients that Dragas "has things well in hand" and apologizing for the secrecy, claiming he was "sworn to keep the process confidential."
Prominent UVA-based media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan says he's disgusted by what he calls "unprecedented" secrecy.
"I have never seen a board act so recklessly, arrogantly, and secretly in my entire life," says Vaidhyanathan, who calls Sullivan's ouster "very scary" and "deeply embarrassing" to the University. "Everything they've done," he says, "is 180 degrees away from the scholarly tradition that had made UVA great."
Kiernan, who lives in Greenwich, Connecticut and who recently penned a book titled Becoming China's Bitch: And Nine More Catastrophes We Must Avoid Right Now runs a venture capital firm. But it's his former role as a partner at Goldman Sachs and as a prospective member of the UVA Board that has raised some eyebrows.
Vaidhyanathan leaps at the "philosophical difference" mentioned by Sullivan in her brief statement following the announcement.
"The philosophical difference is the difference between how an MBA thinks and how a Ph.D. thinks," says Vaidhyanathan. "It looks like a cabal of MBAs have decided that we need creative destruction or some sort of high energy, bold visionary re-engineering of the University."
Another concern is that Goldman Sachs, which recently took a major ownership position in a group of online universities, might find a role at UVA. After all, Dragas noted in her remarks that online classes have recently been "legitimized" by some "elite institutions."
The announcement comes just a month after graduation and the summertime departure of students, something that the perpetrators of the change have not attempted to explain. The Hook's attempts to reach Dragas and other Board members were unsuccessful.
"We are entitled to a full and candid explanation of this sudden and drastic change in University leadership," says the UVA Faculty Senate Executive Council, which praises Sullivan and blasts the statements made by Dragas as "inadequate and unsatisfactory."
Both of UVA's two living past presidents, John Casteen and Robert O'Neil (the latter no stranger to a relatively short term at the helm), have spoken out in support of Sullivan.
"So many things I have seen that seem to me quite positive, things John and I would have hoped to do, Terry got around to in two years," O'Neil says in a phone interview, citing the restructuring of the school's financial model to place more accountability on individual departments and the encouragement of collaboration between departments that could yield savings while simultaneously promoting creativity.
Sullivan's decision to hire Michael Strine and John Simon as her two top officials to implement changes in the financial model has also been widely praised.
While outrage is intense, some wonder whether the seemingly Machiavellian maneuver means the selection of a new president is a fait accompli because in her public statements Dragas demands that critics wait until they see the new president.
"The appropriate day of judgment on this decision," Dragas told faculty and deans in prepared remarks, "will come at the time that a new president has been installed and given an opportunity to prove himself or herself as the leader the institution needs and deserves."
It's as if she's confident that a search will produce a star, someone who will fight the "existential threat to the greatness of UVA," as she put it.
In the vacuum of information left by the Board's reticence, various rumors have bounced around– particularly after Dragas mentioned the Board's wish to make "star hires."
Could a high profile individual, perhaps someone of national stature like Condoleezza Rice or Bill Clinton, have already been eyed to take the position? Hiring a celebrity president might help soothe some critics of Sullivan's firing, but media studies professor Vaidhyanathan says the board's unilateral move is inexcusable, no matter who next takes the helm.
"It's a profound and embarrassing mistake," says Vaidhayanathan, who attended the University of Texas, where Sullivan was one of his favorite grad school professors. Vaidhayanathan says that Rector Dragas needs to explain to the UVA community what the board is seeking in a school president.
"Does she want a top flight scholar and administrator with a sterling reputation who's able to gather support from every constituency in the university?" Vaidhyanathan asks. "If she wants that, she just fired her."
On Tuesday, two days after the announcement, the president's house is quiet. Two envelopes from well-wishers have been stuffed into the front door of the mansion, Carr's Hill, at the time a reporter rings the door bell.
"We're the only ones here," says a member of the house staff, quickly gathering the letters and scurrying back inside. A block away, at Madison Hall, the president's office is equally tranquil.
"She's not here," says a smiling woman at the front desk as she pauses to assist a tourist find his way. "She's traveling."
Reports suggest that UVA's loss will be another university's gain, as interest in hiring Sullivan appears to be streaming in. That doesn't surprise Vaidhyanathan, who cites Sullivan's understanding of teaching and faculty governance, what he calls two core Jeffersonian values.
"She understands that universities are built for the long haul, to interpret the wisdom of the ages and look 100 years into the future," says Vaidhyanathan. "It's not supposed to work like Goldman Sachs. Unfortunately, the guys at Goldman call the shots at UVA."
Note: The next story on the Sullivan ouster: "Head rolls: Kiernan out as UVA faculty condemn Sullivan ouster"