President Sullivan convenes a discussion with newbie board member Victoria Harker, loyal provost John Simon, and newbie boardie Lin Rose at the retreat.
Starting with the Richmond retreat, Charlottesville-based couple Joan Fenton and Albie Tabackman recently began live-streaming, taping, and-- eventually-- transcribing BOV meetings. "We'll keep doing it," says Tabackman, "until they start doing it."
Fear, distrust, sadness, anger. Welcome back to the University of Virginia.
If you spent the summer on a desert island with no internet, you are in for a surprise. This isn't the same UVA you left at the end of last semester, and the storm didn't stop raging with the June 26 reinstatement of President Teresa Sullivan.
"We are still in the middle of a crisis," visiting UVA Economics Professor Ed Burton recently told listeners on a local radio show. "I think most students that I've communicated with– and I've communicated with literally hundreds– think the general feeling of the students is sadness. It's, 'wow– what's happened here?'"
"That this isn't the University I thought I knew?" asked WINA interviewer Rick Daniels. "That's right," answered Burton.
And so, dear Charlottesville escapees, you might ask, what caused this crisis you so blissfully bypassed on your summer adventures, and why does it continue?
All roads lead to Rector Helen Dragas.
"Right or wrong," says graduate student Suzie McCarthy, "she's become the face of the move to oust President Sullivan."
"A visible template"
With most of the principals speaking blandly about moving forward, emails released this summer via Freedom of Information requests provide color. One can witness Dragas' concern about a class inviting students to write about Lady Gaga. And one can imagine– after getting hundreds of emails demanding her resignation– why Dragas asked her hand-picked public relations firm to jot up a statement in case she resigned. And one can sympathize when, in one email, she gets called "Rectum Dragas."
However, the messages that provide the most insight into her thinking and plotting are the ones released almost immediately thanks to a promptly-penned and narrowly-tailored request by the Cavalier Daily.
"As you said today, Darden is a near and visible template for much of what we seek."–Mark Kington to Helen Dragas at 9:51pm on Sunday, June 10.
That was then board member and Vice-Rector Kington reassuring the Rector just a few hours after the two stood on the steps of Madison Hall, the president's office, to tell reporters that the executive committee of the Board was about to accept Sullivan's resignation due to a "philosophical difference." Dragas gave the reporters less than three minutes. Kington never spoke.
Kington and Dragas each earned a business degree from UVA's Darden School. And there's plenty about Darden to impress, from the school's high national rankings to the esteem in which Dean Bob Bruner is held by his peers. Most salient in a state that pays a lower percentage of college costs with each successive year, however, is the fact that Darden takes nothing from the state.
In recent years, while most UVA professors toiled under a four-year salary freeze, Darden profs got pay raises. The school achieved record fund-raising, created in-demand programs in executive education, and raised its regular tuition to about $50,000 with students clamoring to get in. At the end of each year, the school not only doesn't wave a tin cup in the direction of the General Assembly but instead hands over a voluntary "tax," a payment of 10 percent of its budget, currently about $4 million, to UVA. Darden, as a businessperson might say, has "out-performed" the market.
But if Dragas and Kington extolled Darden's virtues, the feeling was not quite mutual, particularly regarding their method, which, by all accounts, was a series of serial meetings, one-on-one encounters in which one would convince another board member that there was consensus to remove the president.
"This is not what we teach at Darden," declared Dean Bruner on a blog post that blasted the ouster and noted that he helped craft a letter from practically all the deans calling for reinstatement.
"Virtually all of the communications I have received from Darden’s alums have been strongly supportive of Terry Sullivan’s reinstatement– the same for Darden’s faculty and staff," Bruner wrote. "We have called continually for open dialogue among parties and transparency about decisions."
Bruner's post won over 1,600 Facebook likes.
But not everyone felt that way. In May, billionaire Board member Randal Kirk urged Dragas to move forward.
"Well, your leadership is certainly already paying off," Kirk told Dragas. "The time in which we could be deferential toward an administration that is mostly bent on the preservation of the status quo is at an end."
"I think," he continued, "that if the board realized that it really is their job to figure out what the University is (and is not) and who the University’s client is, we would be off to a very fine start. The BS tolerance I have seen so far is really quite amazing, however. Sustainability science. Please!"
Without explaining what's wrong with sustainability science, he closed with this: "One of our nannies has two degrees from the University, by the way."
“Thanks for your encouragement," Dragas responded. "I expect to be bullet ridden by Sunday."
So who is the University's client? Calls and emails to Kirk went unreturned.
However, if the client is the student, then UVA appears to be succeeding. At their mid-August retreat in Richmond, Board members were informed by Admissions Dean Greg Roberts that applications have essentially doubled over the past decade– from 14,868 to to 28,260– and that the average SAT has leapt from 1322 to 1351. And just a few days before that meeting, Forbes, a business magazine, named UVA the best public university in America.
Austin Ligon, the founder and former CEO of CarMax, penned an op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, crediting President Sullivan for the vision he saw in her as a member of the search committee that chose her. Helen Dragas was one of Ligon's fellow members on the search committee, but she decided she made a mistake. The continuing question is why.
In the final days leading up to the ouster, Dragas emailed most if not all Board members a graduation speech about moving quickly to correct mistakes– i.e. the hiring of the wrong president. However, it was an op-ed about the need to quickly embrace online education that caused her to email her cohort Kington with the notorious subject line: "why we can't afford to wait."
The article noted that online education currently has "no revenue stream and no business plan to sustain it."
“I am assuming that Friday’s discussion will lead to meeting with the board on Monday,” wrote Board member MacDonald Caputo on the eve of the fateful June 8 meeting where Dragas and Kington delivered the blow to the president.
"We may be headed toward a meeting next Friday instead of Monday," replied Dragas, "but I’ll know more once I work out a couple of pieces that are still moving.”
As it turned out, there was no board meeting, as President Sullivan agreed to resign to spare herself and the university the anguish of a vote. Dragas and Kington recruited the sole Charlottesville member of the Board's executive committee, Hunter Craig, to create the quorum needed that Sunday afternoon, June 10, to accept the president's resignation.
Dragas has made statements that "overwhelming consensus" and "general consensus" on the Board proceeded to the ouster, but she has not provided evidence to support that, and a deadlock in the infamous overnight BOV meeting, along with other information the Hook has gathered, tends to undercut that assertion.
The Board's own rules are clear about removing UVA's leader: a two-thirds majority– at least 11 members– is needed to oust the president. Knowledgeable sources say, however, that the Board deadlocked 8-8 on reinstating Sullivan during that infamous marathon meeting that ended around 2:30am on June 19, the meeting that resulted only in naming an interim president, a move that plunged the campus deeper into outrage.
Had Board member Mark Kington– one of the two architects of the purge– resigned just a few hours sooner than he did that day, an 8-7 majority might have spared Board member and Rector Helen Dragas the ignominy of digging in deeper. But dig she did on June 21 when she released a belated defense of her actions. Laying out a list of 10 challenges facing the university, Dragas defended the ouster as "the right thing, the wrong way" and suggested that a UVA under Sullivan "will continue to drift in yesterday."
Some colleagues, however, would push Dragas in a different direction. In defiance of her wishes, three board members– fed up with the Rector's methods– had already contacted the Board secretary that afternoon to demand another meeting, a reinstatement meeting.
"I was not clever enough at the time," said then-Board member Heywood Fralin, one of the pro-Sullivan camp, in explaining his failure to take a full board vote. Fellow Board member Vince Mastracco, although in the delicate position of serving as law partner to Dragas' husband, would later tell a newspaper how he similarly blundered when Dragas called him in early June to win his vote.
"I'm complicit," Mastracco told the Virginian-Pilot. "If this is the consensus of the group," he says he told Dragas, "I'm not going to stand in the way."
As Mastracco told the Virginian-Pilot, the Board never conducted a meeting to discuss Sullivan's performance as president– even though the full board held a two-day meeting in Charlottesville just 17 days before the ouster.
"This is a classic case of sacrificing process for expediency," he told the Pilot.
Did it meet business standards?
As controversy revved up, key university leaders were caught off guard.
"It seems odd to hire someone age 60, give them a five year contract, and then terminate them after two years for failing to have a long term plan," said the leader of UVA's capital campaign, Richmond-based lawyer Gordon Rainey, in an email to Dragas on June 11. "Be prepared to explain that this is not a snap judgment but a conclusion that has been reached deliberatively by the board over a significant period of time."
Dean of the undergraduate McIntire School of Commerce Carl Zeithaml, who was selected as interim president but quickly withdrew, echoed similar concerns when conferring by email with a pair of wealthy UVA alumni donors.
"I know for a fact that [Sullivan] was told originally not to undertake another strategic planning effort," writes Zeithaml in a June 14 email to James Todd, one of the DC area's biggest developers, and to Jeffrey Walker, chair of UVA's Council of Foundations, "so the whole rationale that she didn't do a long range plan part doesn't make sense unless the BOV: a) suddenly changed their mind, or b) is just using it as an excuse to fire her. "
"I am not sure if [Sullivan] just ever had enough personality and presence for many people," adds Zeithaml.
"Still very confused as to what the BOV was so unhappy with Terry about," writes Walker. "I think the BOV should be fired. Amazing that UVA has two great business schools, but it runs its business so poorly."
"There is a corporate governance problem!" responds Zeithaml. "They have little or no idea what goes on in the schools. On top of it, there is essentially no oversight of the BOV and little accountability except for what the public can muster."
"I imagine change is close to impossible politically at the BOV," responds Todd. "It is one of the Gov's best rewards to the faithful."
Zeithaml, responding to questions about these early emails, still condemns the ouster and admits that the reasons Dragas put forward for the decision still don't make sense to him. He also points out that his comments were made before he had seen Sullivan's infamous May 3 academic strategy memo, which wasn't released to the public until June 22. More about that in a bit.
After claiming that he was as upset to see UVA's first female rector pilloried as he was to see UVA's first female president sacked, Governor Bob McDonnell nominated Dragas to a second four-year Board term on June 29. Unless the General Assembly rejects this nomination in January, her rectorship ends next June.
So why did Dragas do it?
On August 8, in a strongly-worded letter, a group of 14 prominent University of Virginia alumni urged the Board of Visitors to finally come clean with the reasoning behind their actions and noted the crisis is not over.
"It will not end until the Board acknowledges publicly that UVA suffered a significant failure of corporate governance; and it will not end until Board members finally explain candidly, to satisfy common sense, what really motivated them to act so precipitously."
The group took particular note of a recent open letter from resigning faculty member William Wulf, the alleged incongruity of Rector Helen Dragas' public statements on UVA's perceived and actual technology offerings, and the fact that President Sullivan’s May 3 "crucial 12-page strategic memorandum" was not shared with the full board when it met in Charlottesville later that month but only with the Rector and then-Vice-Rector Mark Kington.
"The question remains," say the alums, "whether this was a tactical complement to the Rector’s isolation of Board members through serial contacts."
Alumni aren't the only ones demanding answers. The Faculty Senate called for a rigorous self-examination during the Board Retreat, which occurred August 14-16 in Richmond. Instead, the only major governance proposal (made by Richmond business magnate Bill Goodwin) would extend each Rector's term from two to three years.
Meanwhile, two national investigations are underway: one from the American Association of University Professors and another from UVA's accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
Even after reinstating the president, Helen Dragas further enraged some members of the community by winning a unanimous vote of confidence from her fellow board members, and by an apology which may have seemed directed less to the action than the manner. "I sincerely apologize for the way this was presented," she said, "and you deserved better."
One thing she has yet to address is the role of Paul Tudor Jones. A billionaire hedge fund manager and the lead donor for the local basketball arena, Jones was given advance knowledge of Sullivan's ouster and lauded Dragas' move in an op/ed as one that would have "elated" the first rector, Thomas Jefferson. Jones has declined to return multiple phone calls, and Dragas has declined to discuss her contacts with the power-wielding financier. Governor McDonnell has taken a $100,000 campaign contribution from Jones.
More recently, when this reporter asked Dragas via email for evidence that she didn't lie about the "overwhelming consensus," the Rector was silent. Asked in person if she were still thinking about resigning, Dragas replied in the negative.
As it turns out, the University that forces all students to sign and then follow an Honor Code so strict that it expels anyone found in violation mandates no such rule for its Board.
"The Rector needs to be completely open about what she did," says Suzie McCarthy, the graduate student who organized the 15,000+ member United4Honor Facebook page that led to a 2,000-person rally on the Lawn two days before reinstatement. "The Rector basically needs an attitude adjustment."