Bad form? BOV ignored own president-replacing precedent
One of the harshest criticisms emerging from the sack of UVA president Teresa Sullivan is that the way the Board of Visitors handled her dismissal has caused such blow-back that the BOV managed to harm the reputation of the institution it said it was trying to protect.
Every day, new details emerge of BOV behavior– alleged open meeting-dodging contacts with individual board members by Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington (according to the Washington Post), an "emergency" meeting called on a Sunday for a matter that had been in the works for several weeks (according to an email from former Darden School Foundation chairman Peter Kiernan), and the apparent ouster of a president by just three executive committee members out of a board of 16.
All this stands in sharp contrast to the more dignified exit of the formerly shortest-term president, Robert O'Neil.
"I had ample time to talk to the Board of Visitors individually, and it became clear change was desired," O'Neil recounts in a candid telephone interview. "And after 20 years as a chancellor and president, I was ready."
If today's Board of Visitors, now denounced by faculty, students, and alums, didn't want Teresa Sullivan as president barely two years into her five-year contract, it had only to look at the precedent of how an earlier board handled O'Neil, who served from 1985 to 1990 as UVA's sixth president.
"Both my coming and going were very smooth," says O'Neil, now a senior fellow with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges in Washington. O'Neil was president of the University of Wisconsin system when he was recruited to UVA.
"Even in my first year, a lot of issues were bubbling," says O'Neil. "I still served five years."
As his term neared an end, there were some "genuine differences" with members of the Board, says O'Neil. Then Board member Tom Worrell, who owned the Daily Progress, offered O'Neil a post as head of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, which Worrell had founded a few years earlier.
It was a move that appears to have helped every party: UVA got a smooth transition, O'Neil segued to an arena that utilized his background as a Constitutional scholar, and the Center quickly began making a name for itself as a protector of a sacred American right.
In sharp contrast, the current BOV debacle seems to have damaged everyone involved. The chair of UVA's Darden School Foundation has already resigned, and there are widespread calls for further action.
In the Sullivan ouster, Rector Dragas made the announcement, and it appeared that the president– an engaging and widely-liked personality– was not allowed to speak. By contrast, O'Neil himself announced both his departure from UVA and his move to the Thomas Jefferson Center. He describes a comfortable process in which he announced in October 1989 and had until December 1990 to leave.
"John [Casteen] and I agreed on a date to pass the baton," says O'Neil. "I had nine months. It was a very orderly transition."
That doesn't seem to be the case in the toppling of Sullivan, whose resignation was announced June 10, just two months ahead of an August 15 departure date.
O'Neils says his move out of the president's home, Carr's Hill, was unhurried.
"All the things that are stressful and immediate for Terry and Doug [Laycock, her husband] were quite leisurely for us," says O'Neil. "It seems to me unconscionable that no effort was made to make that kind of transition."
S. Buford Scott of the Scott & Stringfellow stock brokerage (and the family that donated the money for the construction of Scott Stadium) served on the Board of Visitors during O'Neil's term in office, and recalls a transition that was "well handled," something he won't say about the current process.
Scott suggests that 10 years is pretty much optimal for a university president because "times change, situations change, people change."
Was Sullivan given enough time to show what she could do?
"I think two years," says Scott, "was not enough to find out."
O'Neil offers a bit of advice about how the Board of Visitors can handle a future presidential departure in a less destructive manner.
"If there's a mutual judgment and parting of the ways, say, 'It didn't work out,'" suggests O'Neil. "And then you stop. It was baffling to me that instead of stopping, the rector said there was issue A and issue B and made a listing of concerns."
But nobody is suggesting that Sullivan's departure was mutual, so what then?
"I wish there had been more opportunity," says O'Neil, "for explanation and clarification."This story is a part of the The ousting of a president special.