Sullivan glowing at the June 18 rally on the Lawn.
Did you see the pixelated photo on the cover of the print version of the Hook? This is it.
Two years ago, after Teresa Sullivan was selected as the eighth president of UVA, and the first woman to fill the role, replacing John Casteen, III after 20 years at the helm, an associate dean in the McIntire School of Commerce, George Overstreet, joked that "a reduction in testosterone level can never be bad."
Of course, this past summer, we learned that estrogen-fueled leadership can be just as powerful, if not more so.
As Rector Helen Dragas led the charge to oust Sullivan, who'd spent less than two years on the job, and Sullivan fought back to keep the "only position she had ever applied for," the two women faced off in a battle of wills that rocked the University to its core. Indeed, one could argue that the "unpleasantness of last summer," or "UVA June," as it's often called, was the most painful leadership crisis the University has ever faced. In the end, of course, Sullivan prevailed, aided by tremendous University-wide support, and was re-instated just 17 days after Dragas fired her.
Of course, some of the things that Sullivan faced when she took office were no picnic either. UVA student athlete Yeardley Love's murder, the lingering mystery surrounding Morgan Harrington's apparent abduction and murder, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's Climategate attack on a former UVA researcher, and the suicide– on former university president Casteen's last official day in office– of the Virginia Quarterly Review's managing editor. Such events had all brought UVA national attention for the wrong reasons, and Sullivan's administration had to deal with these public relations nightmares.
Still, Sullivan managed to steer the University through rough waters. And she has been a hands-on President, attending many faculty meetings, talks, and UVA sporting events. She even taught a sociology class. What's more, Sullivan embraced her role as a fundraiser, personally courting wealthy alumni. UVA's development staff had a list of donors that could potentially give at least $10 million to the University, and Sullivan met one-on-one with 45 of them.
Ironically, another Sullivan success was the launch of 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, was accompanied by evidence of alleged abuse from his boss and feckless responses by UVA officials. On the program website, the guidelines encourage "those in leadership positions to be 'models of civility' and '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.
Apparently, top leaders at UVA did not get the memo.
Another irony: one of Sullivan's biggest fundraising successes was securing a $12 million donation to found an Eastern philosophy-inspired Contemplative Sciences Center from alum Paul Tudor Jones, who later publicly praised the decision to remove Sullivan in a Daily Progress op-ed.
"Change is never easy and often quite messy," wrote Jones. "The spirit of Thomas Jefferson, the first rector of the University of Virginia, is cheering this action by the Board of Visitors." He also said that UVA supporters should be "elated" by the decision. Why?
Jones cited UVA's dip in U.S. News and World Report's college ranking, from No. 15 to No. 25, poor faculty compensation, slowing student enrollment, and an unwillingness to aspire to "greatness." Indeed, Sullivan was often criticized for being an "incrementalist," that is, for creating change slowly and steadily, instead of boldly and suddenly, as Jones and Dragas would have preferred. Sullivan would not deny that, and indeed defended her incrementalist approach.
“You get the buy-in from stakeholders before you move forward,” Sullivan told the New York Times. “When I came here, I was warned that this was an institution steeped in tradition. People love the tradition, and they would not react well to sudden change.”
Indeed, they did not.
Given the way Sullivan was welcomed, with praise bordering on adoration, her unceremonious dismissal by Rector Dragas, via an early Sunday morning press release, followed up by a brief meeting with the press in which Dragas was curt and resistant to questions, was puzzling to everyone. Previous Rector John O. "Dubby" Wynne, who presided over Sullivan's hiring, was so effusive in his praise for Sullivan that he said she had met a list of requirements for the position put forth by the board "so comprehensive as to be unattainable," and added that the Board had found someone with "emotional intelligence, who is self aware, sociable, and empathetic."
The woman who tried to can Sullivan, however, appeared to lack those qualities. From that chilly, defensive press conference on the morning of June 10, to the apparent lack of concern for students protesting at a recent BOV meeting– they were threatened with "termination" if they didn't leave the building–- Rector Dragas has had a knack for generating bad publicity.
Indeed, UVA politics professor Larry Sabato, a predictor of elections, predicted that Sullivan's ouster would be "a P.R. disaster of national proportions” if it was true that she was canned for no significant reason. Hunter Rawlings, Chief Executive of the Association of American Universities, calls Sullivan’s forced resignation the “most egregious” case of boardroom intrigue he has ever witnessed.
Sullivan, on the other hand, has had a knack for generating tremendous sympathy. After being forced out, University-wide support for her presidency and anger at the way the dismissal was handled swelled within the vacuum of her silence. A Facebook page created to show support for Sullivan and advocating for her reinstatement quickly generated over 15,000 followers. Emails poured in to Rector Dragas' inbox demanding an explanation, asking that the Board reverse its decision, and asking for another resignation: hers.
As the story continued to garner national attention, Vice Rector Mark Kington and Chief Operating Officer Michael Strine, who both backed the ouster, slunk away, and within months another key supporter on the board, Randal Kirk, resigned, leaving Dragas close to alone to face the public's wrath.
Not only was Sullivan reinstated, but her power was increased in November. The board voted to give her a year-long contract extension that will carry her term out to 2016, it created a formal personnel review process for the president, and it agreed to put a non-voting faculty member on each board committee that doesn't already have one. It also agreed that never again could a president's contract be modified or a resignation accepted without a full meeting of the board.
Of course, while Sullivan's future as UVA president appears to be secure, Dragas' future is still in question. In January, the state legislature will convene to decide on her reappointment, and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who knows for sure which way they will go.
Like it or not, because Dragas chose to remain in her position, the two women are intricately linked. To watch them now in BOV meetings is a study in contrasts. Dragas, a lean, confident woman with a keen sense of fashion, sometimes gets up during meetings to grab a cookie and cup of coffee. Sullivan, a zaftig woman with a more practical approach to fashion, sometimes gets up too, but to grab a strawberry or a slice of orange. While neither woman has publicly apologized for her actions, or commented on her personal feelings toward the other, there have been photo ops of them smiling and embracing each other in the aftermath, and as the Hook learned, Gov. Bob McDonnell met with the two women privately this fall, presumably to advise them to get along.
As detailed in this paper, the standoff between the two women, given the lack of any truly compelling justification for Sullivan's rushed firing, led a UVA psychiatrist to believe that a "visceral antipathy" toward Sullivan might have been behind the BOV's actions.
"The reasons they are giving for Sullivan's firing hold no water," said J. Anderson Thomson, a psychiatrist at UVA Student Health Services, adding rather bluntly, "Maybe Helen Dragas, donor Paul Tudor Jones, and others on the Board simply dislike President Sullivan because she is fat."
Sullivan, in the face of what could be an insulting line of inquiry, has responded publicly with grace and humor, indicating that she is eating healthily, working out, and that high fashion is not a priority for her.
Asked if Sullivan's ouster might have had anything to do with a prejudice against her physical appearance, Rector Dragas, in a rare comment to a reporter, lashed out.
"Your assertion is ridiculous," she responded via an assistant, "and the question is highly inappropriate and offensive."
In a New York Times story, however, it was revealed that Dragas, during a personnel review the previous year, had criticized Sullivan's appearance, telling her that Board members had said that they thought her wardrobe was "occasionally too informal."
Even today, however, there has been no convincing justification offered for the attempted firing, and from the rushed way it was done, it appears that Sullivan herself isn't even sure why.
If there is private pain from the events of this past summer, Sullivan remains guarded. She declined to be interviewed for this story, but when asked directly by a New York Times reporter why she thought she was pushed out, she replied, "I don't know."
Carol Wood, the recently retired university spokesperson whose services were briefly commandeered by the Rector only to return to report once again to Sullivan was beside her when the Times reporter asked the question.
“We’ve had that conversation around this table many times,” Wood was quoted. “We don’t get it.”