McDonnell's office says that a "surprised" governor first learned of the move to oust Sullivan "late Wednesday."
As many of you know, no major decision of this kind can be made at Virginia without the support and assent of the Governor. –Peter Kiernan
Ever since sending these words in his infamous "this project" email, then Darden Foundation Chair Peter Kiernan and Governor Bob McDonnell have taken pains to distance themselves from the ouster of President Teresa Sullivan and the damage it has inflicted upon the University of Virginia. Kiernan promptly resigned as chair of the Foundation; and McDonnell– fortuitously, as Charlottesville erupted, off in Europe on a trade mission– has said he won't "micro-manage" University affairs.
McDonnell has explained away questions about any advance knowledge by informing other media that he merely got a courtesy call from the Rector a couple of days before the Rector dropped an axe on the neck of a popular and legally-appointed president.
"He was surprised by the decision," says spokesperson Tucker Martin. Another spokesperson points to Kiernan's later disavowals of the assertion about the governor's "support and assent."
If it's true that the governor didn't pre-approve the stealthy plan to remove a sitting president, several factors– the plan's secrecy, its potential illegality, and his unwillingness to remove the executioner– combine to make many people construe McDonnell's inaction as tacit approval.
And then there's his Friday message to the public.
In words that did little to diminish the impression that he might stand with those who ousted President Sullivan, McDonnell issued a statement lamenting the "war," the "predictable press frenzy," and the "few" faculty, staff, and alumni "who foment division that only adds to the troubles."
"Please stop," the governor implores in that June 22 statement, which escaped most press notice, perhaps because it was overshadowed by his same-day headline-grabbing vow to seek resignations from the entire Board if members fail to end the controversy on Tuesday.
Although it contained that ultimatum, the Governor's letter to the Board of Visitors also seemed to reaffirm Board authority to unilaterally make personnel decisions.
"While public input is very important and should be given due consideration, it is not the responsibility of the faculty, staff, alumni, donors or other parties– or even the Governor– to manage the University," writes McDonnell in a message that would be referenced later that day by Rector Helen Dragas, who expressed appreciation for the Governor's leadership, for "affirming the importance of Board governance, and that we alone are appointed to make these decisions on behalf of the University, free of influence from outside political, personal or media pressure."
Open government guru Waldo Jaquith says he's been frustrated by McDonnell's refusal to take a position.
"He's guilty of a false equivalency, of pretending that there are two equal sides in this matter," says Jaquith, a Democrat who admits that he is no fan of McDonnell's political positions.
"Often people who seek to appear impartial will declare a pox on both their houses," Jaquith says. "I think that's what he's done here."
"I think he wants it to go away," says Cavalier Daily editor Matt Cameron of McDonnell's response to the tempest taking place on grounds and online.
Indeed, as the Governor references in the June 22 statement, he returned to Richmond last week from a trade trip to Europe for just a few days before flying cross country to Utah to mingle with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in what is widely perceived as a VP vetting trip. Then, McDonnell carried on to San Diego, where, the Washington Post reports, he attended a seminar put on by influential and conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, major donors to Republican-backed causes.
But if McDonnell's hoping the BOV/Sullivan mess will go away, he may be disappointed. Even if Sullivan is reinstated at the scheduled Board meeting on Tuesday, the cries for an investigation into whether laws were broken likely won't die down unless Dragas resigns or isn't reappointed.
As has been widely reported, questions have arisen over whether Dragas may have broken the law when she reportedly told Sullivan she had the votes to dismiss her. While she initially claimed an "overwhelming consensus," later reports have questioned the level the support she had actually mustered before hastily convening three members of the Board's executive committee on June 10– along with now-resigned vice rector Mark Kington and developer Hunter Craig– to vote to accept Sullivan's resignation.
"If it's overt misrepresentation, then it's fraud," says Hook legal analyst David Heilberg, adding that it would be hard to prove that Dragas was acting with the criminal intent required to prosecute such a case.
Then there was the process by which Dragas apparently ascertained the board members' support for the Sullivan ouster. Speaking with them one at a time, and without holding a public meeting or vote, is something critics claim may have violated open government law.
Heilberg, however, says board members are allowed to talk one-on-one "within reason." However, if Dragas was deliberately conducting the process to circumvent open government laws in order to keep the public– and Sullivan– in the dark, she may have acted illegally.
"Whether she crossed the line," says Heilberg, "will depend on some things we don't know."
Other legal questions have arisen over whether the Board met the requirements to call the "emergency meeting" of the executive committee on June 10. Such meetings are restricted by law to situations in which "unforeseen" circumstances arise, yet as an email from resigned Darden Foundation Chair Peter Kiernan reveals, and as Dragas' and Kington's emails released through Freedom of Information Act requests confirm, the decision to remove Sullivan had been discussed, at a minimum, for weeks. Heilberg, however, says it would be hard to prosecute such a claim calling the word "unforeseen" a "term of art."
"It's unforeseen that she's not going to serve out her five-year contract, even though they made it happen, because you don't 'foresee' someone getting out of her contract early," says Heilberg, noting that a savvy attorney could argue either side.
All of this may be moot if Sullivan is reinstated, a move that has a tsunami of support.
The list of those urging the reinstatement of the president includes the Faculty Senate, all UVA deans not named Zeithaml, the members of the UVA Council of Foundations, several past members of the Board of Visitors, both living past University presidents, over a dozen Virginia legislators, and nearly 16,000 members of an alumni Facebook page called Hoos4Honor.
So far, the loudest– practically the only– voice endorsing Sullivan's ouster is University of Maryland professor Peter Morici, who penned a piece for FoxNews.
It turns out Morici has a history of "astroturfing." In 2005, he was found to be writing letters to editors endorsing steel tariffs while getting paid for consulting for Nucor Corporation, the nation's largest steel producer. "In most cases, his role as a paid consultant was not disclosed," wrote Accuracy in Media.
"I have absolutely no relationship or arrangement with any interested party in the UVA-Sullivan affair, or anyone representing or advocating a participant or position in the affair," Morici says in response to a reporter's question. "I wrote the opinion piece on the basis of my own interest in the issue. No one asked me to write it, no one suggested the topic to me, and I did not receive any compensation or considerations." (He calls mention of his past astroturfing "unfair.")
So McDonnell can probably count on at least one member of the academy to support his view, which he expressed in his June 22 statement: "The only legitimate question now facing the board is: What leadership is required at UVA to continue to pursue increased excellence in the 21st century?"
One vocal critic of the Board's decision to oust Sullivan says he's withholding judgement on McDonnell until he sees the outcome of the Board appointments.
"Once he's able to take the time to examine what has happened over the last few weeks, he's going to pick new members of the board who will have the long-term interests of the university first and foremost in their minds," says media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan. "It would shock me if he reappointed the rector."
While there have been boisterous calls for Dragas to resign, she has shown no signs of doing it.
Some of her statements have stoked fears that a new president has already been secretly tapped, a conspiratorial idea but one that Dragas herself may have begun fueling in her remarks to deans that fateful Sunday the 10th of June.
"The appropriate day of judgment on this decision will come," said Dragas, "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."
Who that person might be remains a question, although sources note that one prominent businessman has taken a particular interest in Virginia's higher education and even served on UVA's presidential search committee prior to Sullivan's 2010 hire.
That person is former UVA Rector Thomas F. Farrell II, who serves as President and CEO of the parent company of Dominion Virginia Power, a position for which he was compensated $14 million in 2011, according to SEC filings. In addition, Farrell serves as chair of the Governor's Commission on Higher Education Reform, Innovation and Investment, an appointment McDonnell made in 2010. In fact, the two men have a long history together having graduated from Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria in 1972, and Farrell, a UVA Law grad, gave McDonnell nearly $72,000 in political donations during his gubernatorial run.
Both Dragas and Kington sit on Dominion's Board, and press accounts from the past several years show Dominion's close and supportive relationship with McDonnell, who stood with power company officials at a February press conference announcing a new power plant in Warren County. The joint appearance of Farrell and McDonnell implied the Governor's endorsement of the plant, said an article on the anti-Dominion website endpowermadness.com, "despite the fact that [McDonnell's] own regulatory agencies have yet to receive or review the company's official plan for the plant."
One Farrell acquaintance scoffs at the notion that Farrell has his eye on the UVA presidency.
"I'd be stunned if there was any truth in that," says UVA law professor John Jeffries, who served on the UVA presidential search committee with Farrell.
"By the way," Jeffries chuckles, "he has a pretty good job."
Regardless of who might have eyed the presidency, with his deep connections to big business and higher education, McDonnell is walking a political tightrope as he navigates the UVA fiasco. But even those critical of Sullivan's ouster aren't eager to question the Governor's dedication to higher education, and particularly to UVA, where he has two sons currently enrolled.
"His budgets have increased funding for the University," notes Vaidhyanathan, who points out that Sullivan invited McDonnell to be the commencement speaker last year.
If some are speculating that political motivations were behind Sullivan's ouster and that McDonnell must have had prior knowledge, despite his repeated denials, Vaidhyanathan has a more generous analysis of McDonnell's reluctance to step in and control the process.
"He respects the traditional role of boards and is not in a position to dictate one resolution or another," says Vaidhyanathan, who believes at least one of McDonnell's board appointment decisions should be clear.
"If he reappoints Rector Dragas," Vaidhyanathan says, "he's basically extending the pain and trauma and making it that much harder for the university to recover. Alumni are going to doubt his commitment to the long-term future of the University."
As this issue went to press, the Board of Visitors voted unanimously to reinstate President Sullivan. For updates, go to www.readthehook.com.