Head rolls: Kiernan out as UVA faculty condemn Sullivan ouster
Just four days after University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan was ousted in what many are calling a coup by a small faction of the University's Board of Visitors and a cadre of Wall Street-oriented alumni, the state's flagship school has been thrown into chaos, and a key figure in what's become a national headline-grabbing fiasco has resigned his position as chair of the Darden School Foundation Board.
After days of backpedaling over an email in which he painted himself as a key architect of firing the president or at least leading the "strategic dynamism" effort, Peter Kiernan, a venture capitalist who had been scheduled to speak that night at a UVA alumni club in New York City, instead focused his attention on letting his resignation get announced Thursday afternoon the 14th of June at a hastily arranged town hall meeting in Charlottesville for Darden faculty and staff.
With the chairs of 34 academic departments demanding answers in a public letter and a Faculty Senate resolution condemning the firing, the Board of Visitors has called an emergency meeting for Monday afternoon. Meanwhile, Sullivan's two most prominent deputies seem to have quickly accepted the Board's "resolute and authoritative" decision to oust the woman who hired them.
"The BoV will take the next steps on Monday to put an interim President in place and will follow with the establishment of a deliberate, principled, and thoughtful search process for our next President," UVA C.O.O. Michael Strine and Provost John Simon write in an email to University faculty posted on the school's home page, urging the professors to "focus constructively forward in preparing the institution for its next stage of leadership and our shared commitment to quality and excellence in teaching, discovery, and patient care."
Not everyone welcomed such a soothing message.
"It sounds like a giant 'shut up and get back to work,'" says one UVA staffer, who requested anonymity.
Focusing on academic work and research might, however, prove difficult in the charged climate created by the unusual and highly secretive Board decision to oust Sullivan less than two years into her presidency, a decision that Hunter R. Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell University blasted as "the most egregious case I have ever seen of mismanagement by a governing board.”
“It’s secretive, it’s misguided," Rawlings told the Washington Post, "and based on the public statements, there’s no clear rationale.”
A Roanoke Times editorial, noting that Virginia law requires three-day advance notice for public meetings, has called it illegal. And the ensuing national media frenzy has raised more questions than answers, but a few details have begun to emerge.
People close to the Darden School indicate that there was a cabal involved, but that it's focused more around Darden School Foundation Chair Peter Kiernan than the school itself. Indeed, Kiernan– a resident of posh Greenwich, Connecticut who recently hobnobbed with Hollywood actors– put himself at the center of the firestorm after an email he wrote in the wake of the Sullivan announcement.
The email, addressed to "Fellow Directors," actually went wider than the 40 business titans who control the school. According to a knowledgeable source, it appeared as though Kiernan clumsily employed the "reply all" function with the email list affixed atop Darden School Dean Bob Bruner's regular monthly newsletters. That means Kiernan may have inadvertently shot his email to the desks of such University bigwigs as Michael Strine, John Simon, and, yes, even to Sullivan herself.
The email has Kiernan seeming to claim that Governor Bob McDonnell pre-approved the ouster, something that both a McDonnell spokesperson and Kiernan himself denied when confronted by a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter. Although nowhere in the email did Kiernan mention his desire to join the Board of Visitors, he claimed to the reporter that that's what he was talking about when he wrote,"As many of you know no major decision of this kind can be made at Virginia without the support and assent of the Governor."
The same email thrice used the term "strategic dynamism" in discussing a quality sought in a future leader, even as Kiernan praises Sullivan as "a decent and thoroughly pleasurable partner" both to Darden and its Foundation. The desire of those who pressed the presidential ouster, he asserted, "stems from their concern that the governance of the University was not sufficiently tuned to the dramatic changes we all face: funding, internet, technology advances, the new economic model."
Anyone concerned with vagueness in that explanation could be assured, Kiernan wrote, that Rector Helen Dragas, a Tidewater area real estate developer, "has things well in hand." Dragas, as previously reported, has demanded that critics wait to see the new president before offering a verdict.
Such assurances have not sufficed for everyone. On Thursday, June 14, the UVA Faculty Senate issued a resolution in support of Sullivan and expressing a "lack of confidence" in the Board of Visitors. John Whitehead, founder of the human rights legal clinic known as the Rutherford Institute, expresses more than a lack of confidence in the Board.
"Nationwide, it makes them look like bumblers," says Whitehead, who has known Sullivan's husband, Constitutional scholar and UVA Law professor Doug Laycock for more than 15 years and has offered legal assistance to Sullivan should she decide to take any action.
"It's not the way you treat human beings," says Whitehead, "if you have any compassion."
Note: The next story on the Sullivan ouster: "Bad form? BOV ignored own president-replacing precedent"This story is a part of the The ousting of a president special.