A smiling Teresa Sullivan greets future colleagues in the Rotunda at an event announcing her hiring in January 2010.
Sullivan glowing at the June 18 rally on the Lawn.
Given the lack of specific, convincing reasons that Rector Helen Dragas has given for forcing the resignation of UVA President Teresa Sullivan, what really motivated the decision has become a mystery. What if a visceral, even unconscious, prejudice against Sullivan's physical appearance, manner, or gender contributed to the undignified way in which her firing was handled?
"The problem here," says UVA Faculty Senate chair George Cohen, "is I haven't seen any evidence that President Sullivan wasn't capable of addressing the University's challenges or problems."
UVA's Larry Sabato has called the process leading up to the decision "absolutely outrageous."
"There wasn't a scintilla of transparency in it," he told Richmond Station NBC12 in a rare interview. "This has given us the worst two weeks of publicity since I've been associated with the University, and that was 42 years ago. I'm sick at heart."
Sabato likened the ouster to a military "command and control" operation, and said that the only cure for the blunder was to reinstate President Sullivan.
For many, however, the question remains: What on earth were Dragas and company thinking? According to one source, Dragas assured UVA Provost John Simon that the fall-out from the firing would blow over in a "couple of days." What might have lead to such short-sighted, foolish thinking?
The answer may be that they were not thinking.
One UVA psychiatrist suspects a "visceral antipathy" toward President Sullivan might have been behind the BOV's actions.
"The reasons they are giving for Sullivan's firing hold no water," says J. Anderson Thomson, a psychiatrist at UVA Student Health Services. "Maybe Helen Dragas, donor Paul Tudor Jones, and others on the Board simply dislike President Sullivan because she is fat."
Now, that may seem like a rude stretch, but into the vacuum of insufficiently explained reasons for Sullivan's abrupt dismissal, all manner of speculation flows when the stated reasons for something simply don't add up.
"The sheer absence of information from the Board of Visitors about their motivations and processes has fueled a torrent of speculation," writes Darden Dean Robert Bruner in a June 25 statement. "In the absence of the facts, people will create their own realities."
However, Thomson says he didn't actually have to reach to make this assertion, as several recent studies have shown "weight-based discrimination" runs rampant, particularly in the corporate world.
"All the reasons they offer are sincere rationalizations of that visceral antipathy," says Thomson. "That helps explain the vagueness of the reasons they offer and the reasons' contradiction by facts."
A study by Michigan State University professor Mark Roehling, a professor of human resource management who analyzed 30 studies examining weight-based discrimination in the workplace, uncovered a "mountain of evidence" that overweight people are less likely to get hired and promoted to positions of authority. As for the corporate ladder, the research showed that overweight executives are rarely tapped for top leadership roles– and that overweight white women face the most severe prejudice.
Thomson points out that while most people would not publicly comment on someone's weight, there's little doubt that it crossed minds when Sullivan was appointed President.
"Everyone I know commented or talked about her weight when we first saw her," says one female UVA third year, who likes and supports Sullivan. "It was kind of hard to ignore. "
Indeed, as UVA professor of English and women's studies Susan Fraiman points out– while declining to comment specifically about Sullivan– appearance matters as a factor in social relations, especially for women.
"Appearance– in particular, conformity to a certain body ideal– matters more for women than for men," says Fraiman. "In our culture, the body ideal for women is specifically white and unrealistically thin and youthful."
According to one UVA alum, at a party recently, the alum, who wishes to remain anonymous, says she actually overheard a man say, "I'm humiliated that UVA should have a fat woman as president."
In addition, as Fraiman points out, just because a message is delivered or an action performed by a woman doesn't necessarily preclude an element of gender discrimination. In fact, she notes, it may sometimes be the case that having a woman out front is a more or less conscious strategy for avoiding the appearance of discrimination.
Thompson thinks that Sullivan's insecurities in this regard might have caused her, at first, to go along with the demands of Dragas. Indeed, if she would now accept being reinstated, one has to wonder why Sullivan agreed to resign in the first place. Was she bullied into it? As initially reported, Dragas told Sullivan that the decision to oust her had the full support of the BOV, something later contradicted in subsequent accounts. So why did she cave so quickly?
Asked if there might have been any possible bullying and discrimination based on psychical appearance, perceived performance, and strategic approach in the dismissal of UVA President Teresa Sullivan, former Vice Rector Mark Kington, who resigned from his post following the ouster, says that "any claims such as you describe are not true to my knowledge or action.
"Please know that I would consider claims as you describe to be slander," writes Kington in an email, "and I would be compelled to take any steps necessary to protect my reputation."
Ironically, it was Sullivan who launched the Respect@UVA program earlier this year, a response, in large part, to the death of Virginia Quarterly Review managing editor Kevin Morrissey, whose suicide in August 2010, just as Sullivan was taking office, followed evidence of alleged abuse from his boss and feckless responses by UVA officials. It was trial by fire for Sullivan, as the story launched a national discussion on workplace bullying.
Sullivan's Respect@UVA program provides resources and information for fostering civility and respect in the workplace, reporting problems, and settling conflicts. On the program website, the guidelines encourage "open and cooperative approach in dealings with employees" and also recognizing and embracing individual differences." Those in leadership positions should be "models of civility" and are "responsive to complaints." Leaders are also asked not to engage in any kind of "pattern of disruptive behavior or interaction" that could "adversely impact the quality of services" at the University.
Given the way Sullivan was treated, she appears to have been a victim of the behavior her program was meant to curb.
Under tips for managers, there's a set of questions they can ask themselves to determine if they might be bullies, such as "Do you think your standards are high and wonder why others seem to not care as much as you?" and "At meetings, are your ideas never met with dissenting views?"
According to statements from Dragas, none of the typical procedures for dismissing an employee were followed: no evidence of a poor post-firing performance review or a failure to meet any agreed upon benchmarks; no strong or controversial public or University-wide criticisms; and no on-going communication with Sullivan that her job was in jeopardy.
In contrast, when former College of William & Mary president Gene Nichol was forced out by that school's board in 2008 after only three years, the action followed months of public controversy. In 2006, Nichol removed a cross from the altar of a chapel because he said it might make students of other denominations feel uncomfortable. In 2008, controversy again found Nichol when, in the name of free expression, he declined to censor a student-funded burlesque performance called the Sex Workers' Art Show.
Some conservative alumni were outraged, and accused Nichol of tarnishing the school's legacy. They demanded that he resign, and abuse was heaped upon him for being, as one critic put it, "an overweight and unkempt college president."
Still, the Board allowed Nichol's three-year contract to expire before making the decision not to renew his services.
When asked what he thought about what was unfolding at UVA, Nichol, now teaching law at the University of North Carolina, got to the point.
"I'm glad I live in North Carolina," he said.
"She doesn't look like a University president..."
According to the above referenced research, people with Sullivan's physical characteristics could find it especially difficult, if not impossible, to ascend the executive ladder.
"Our general findings were that when one reaches the obesity level, there’s very little likelihood that you are going to make it to the highest levels of being an executive," Roehling concludes.
Thompon asks us to try to name a single overweight female CEO, and according to Roehling's study, only five percent of male and female CEOs are obese, compared to 36 percent of men and 38 percent of women nationally in the CEO age range. However, 45 to 61 percent of male CEOs were found to be overweight (not obese), while only 5 to 22 percent of female CEOs were overweight.
Indeed, another recent study by the University of Manchester found that discrimination against overweight people occurs in the hiring, firing, and advancement of employees.
“Our findings show that there is a clear need to address obesity discrimination, particularly against females who tend to bear the brunt of anti-fat prejudice," said the researchers.
During a gathering at Cville Coffee with former Gov. Tim Kaine, who was questioned about the Sullivan fiasco (he has since called for her reinstatement), attendee Phylissa Mitchell raised the appearance issue.
"She doesn't look like a University president, she looks like someone's grandmother," Mitchell of Sullivan. "Women are always concerned about how they look."
"It's an issue I think about myself," said the plus-sized Mitchell. "It bothers me if that was the reason."
Physical appearance has become such a key expectation of executives that UVA's graduate business school, Darden, makes fitness part of the executive training program.
“We believe healthy and fit executives are more effective leaders, and so we offer a highly integrated program that looks at the connections among physical, mental, and emotional capabilities,” Jolene Bodily, director of Darden’s executive education wellness program, told BizEd Magazine.
Since claiming on June 10 that Sullivan's resignation was a "mutual agreement" between the President and the Board of Visitors, Dragas has presented a litany of reasons defending her actions that have either been demonstratively false or thrown into question by a lack of specificity.
For instance, we now know that the agreement was not truly mutual. And as emails obtained by the Cavalier Daily revealed, one reason was a frenzied desire to implement online education programs– in the form of simply placing web cams in front of teachers and charging students across the globe to take the classes.
As revealed in a year 2000 interview with UVA mega-donor Paul Tudor Jones, whom sources say was involved in the "project" to get rid of Sullivan, Jones expressed as his sole business regret not having climbed aboard the internet boom on the ground floor. In this he shares a similarity with Dragas and former Vice Rector Kington, who resigned June 19, shortly before the release of his emails.
As if on cue, Jones penned an op-ed for the Daily Progress supporting Sullivan's ouster, saying that UVA needed "proactive leadership" in a rapidly changing world. (And in a statement he might live to regret, Jones said that the "spirit of Thomas Jefferson, the first rector of the University of Virginia, is cheering this bold action by the Board of Visitors.")
In her latest statement, penned in consultation with high-powered New York PR firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies (the same PR firm that helped sell the first Iraq war to the American people), Dragas frantically lists the University's many failings as proof of a need for a change in leadership, saying the school was "adrift in yesterday."
However, various faculty quickly point out that UVA's Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning is a national leader in developing distance learning programs, and that the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities has been developing information technology tools for scholarly research since 1993.
Sullivan's supposedly lethargic fundraising was also cited as a reason, but as Sullivan herself pointed out, philanthropic donations have gone up 15 percent, during a recession no less, and she is already presiding over a $3-plus billion dollar endowment that places UVA among the most well funded schools in the nation.
While UVA's rank as 25th best university in U.S. News & World Report– and 2nd best public school– might seem pretty good to some, both Jones and Dragas characterized UVA as an institution facing rapid decline.
So how does one explain these seemingly vague generalizations for the dismissal? And in such an unceremonious fashion? And what is one to make of the logic Dragas later used to defend: "In my view, we did the right thing, the wrong way."
Peter Norton, a professor in the Department of Science, Technology & Society, told the recent Rally for Honor on the Lawn that Dragas followed a procedure that no researcher at UVA would ever condone. "If the process if flawed," said Norton, "the results are unreliable."
Okay, back to not thinking. One of those highly ranked departments at UVA is the Psychology Department. Research done by faculty there just might help us understand what happened.
"One of the biggest changes in psychology in the last couple of decades has been our discovery that most of what we do is guided unconsciously," says Gerald Clore, a psychology professor at UVA." The reasons we give for our choices, even when accurate, are not so much insights as after-the-fact constructions. This idea, only now commonly accepted in psychology, was shown experimentally by Tim Wilson over thirty years ago."
That would be UVA psychology professor Tim Wilson, whose 2004 book Strangers to Ourselves brought together the research of which Clore speaks. To be fair, Clore and Wilson, who sits on the Faculty Senate, were not interviewed for this story, but for an upcoming one on Wilson's work. Still, it's worth noting how Wilson's discoveries might give us a window of understanding into the events at UVA.
Strangers to Ourselves debunks the popular notion that we can understand and master ourselves, that we are rational. Instead, Wilson revealed the ways in which we are influenced and guided by a mishmash of subconscious impulses and immediate emotions that we don't always completely understand.
Indeed, in trying to understand the motivations of Dragas and Company, might it be worth trying to read between the lines? Might the "visceral antipathy" noted by Thomson lie somewhere in the murky depths of their reasoning?
"This is but a partial list," says Dragas in her statement, as if the long list of alleged failures were just the tip of the iceberg. "Put together, these challenges represent an extremely steep climb, even if the University were lean and on top of its game."
A steep climb? Requiring a lean leader? Talk amongst yourselves.
And what of Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia, a former model? The two devotees of ashtanga yoga (a recent photo in Vanity Fair shows Sonia bent like a pretzel) have started a chain of yoga studios, the first one in their hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut, where musician Sting and other celebrities attended the grand opening. The Joneses spent $12 million funding something called the UVA Contemplative Sciences Center, what Sonia Jones has called a center for "yogic studies." As Sullivan has said, the concept for the Center has been expanded beyond the "original vision of the donor" to include a variety of disciplines, and perhaps to address the impression that donors were purchasing a kind of academic legitimacy for their private yoga studio business.
Might Paul and Sonia Jones have disapproved of these changes? Might they have had a problem with Sullivan being the image of UVA, and of the Center they funded?
Thomson theorizes that comments that question Sullivan's fundraising abilities, her capacity for bold action, her stamina to deal with challenges, the clarity of her vision for the future of UVA, and her "incremental" approach to solving problem and achieving goals, all serve as proxies for the view that Sullivan simply looks and acts unfit to lead.
"How else," Thomson asks, "can we explain their reasoning?"
As Sullivan has said, she and the Board had "philosophical differences," something that has oft been repeated by those justifying her removal. But as philosophy professor Mitchell Green pointed out at the recent Rally for Honor, Dragas and the BOV haven't so much expressed a compelling philosophy as they have lapsed into a "dogmatic slumber."
The main point Malcolm Gladwell made in his best-selling Blink– which lavishly credits Wilson– was the power of rapid and unconscious judgments. "Consciously," Gladwell wrote, "we listen to facts and political discussion. Unconsciously we respond to stereotypes and looks."
One source tells the Hook that some female faculty members at UVA have taken to characterizing the fiasco as the "sorority girl against the fat girl" story, alluding to the aggressive and slim Dragas working behind the scenes and then confronting the overweight Sullivan in her office. One infamous sorority scandal at DePauw University comes immediately to mind. In 2007, officials from Delta Zeta, hoping to increase recruitment, kicked 23 women out of the sorority house for not "representing" the sorority well. All 23 were overweight.
Others have pointed to the political ambitions of the governor, who has already taken $100,000 from Paul Tudor Jones, to suggest even more sinister motives, that this "project" was orchestrated from the highest levels of Virginia state government in an effort to replace Sullivan with someone more amenable to the business community. Until a more convincing explanation for what Sabato called "an outrageous process" to unseat a University president emerges, it's unlikely such speculation will stop.
Ironically, if indeed Sullivan's ousting was motivated by an unconscious antipathy for her physical image, of simply not liking her for personal or ideological reasons, actually firing her may have inadvertently transformed that image in the eyes of the public.
Oddly enough, given the attention and support she has received, Sullivan may now embody the kind of dynamism that Dragas and Company claimed to be seeking. In purely visual terms, no one can deny that those photographs of Sullivan (who has indeed lost weight since taking office) entering the Rotunda through a crowd of supporters show a woman looking confident, kind, and beautiful.
Note: a few hours after this story went to press on June 26, Rector Dragas responded to questions about the possibility that Sullivan dismissal was done in a bullying fashion, motivated by a prejudice against her demeanor and physical appearance.
"Your assertion is ridiculous," she responded via an assistant, "and the question is highly inappropriate and offensive."