Rector reaction: Boiling point or dénouement?
Just when you think the bad publicity that has plagued UVA since the "unpleasantness" of last summer couldn't possibly continue, up pops a front page story in the Washington Post exposing lingering tensions between between UVA Rector Helen Dragas and UVA President Teresa Sullivan that recently reached a "boiling point."
According to documents and emails obtained by the Post, shortly after Dragas was reappointed to the Board of Visitors, the Rector sent Sullivan a whopping list of 65 goals to reach before the semester was out. Incensed, Sullivan fired off an email to the Board saying the goals were "almost impossible to achieve" and that she "did not care to be set up to fail."
The story [At U-Va., tensions persist between Sullivan and Dragas] quickly rekindled the outrage that many still feel for the unceremonious way Sullivan was treated last summer, as Dragas unsuccessfully attempted to remove her from office. Suzie McCarthy, the grad student who mobilized thousands of people to push for Sullivan's reinstatement, took the gloves off in a Facebook post, saying "Okay I'm done playing nice and I'm finished being diplomatic…Dragas you have messed with me for the last freakin' time."
On March 5, the UVA Faculty Senate issued a statement condemning Dragas's actions:
"Rector Dragas's reported conduct does not embody the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation that we expected to follow the reinstatement of President Sullivan," the statement reads. "Unfortunately, it raises the very concerns about minority control that led UVA's accrediting agency to put us on warning last fall, and suggests that Rector Dragas has not yet learned the governance lessons from last summer's crisis. This kind of behavior must end."
"Is anyone surprised?" asks Andy Thomson, a UVA-based psychiatrist who has followed the troublesome relationship between the the two women. "Given the events of last year and then Dragas' reappointment, how could anyone think this would turn into a workable relationship that would benefit the University?"
Public relations, it would appear, is not Rector Dragas's strong suit.
UVA Board member William H. Goodwin Jr. also took some heat for comments he made to the Post. Goodwin said the Post was making a "mountain of out of a mole hill," that there was no tension between the Board and Sullivan, and that the only deterrent to the smooth governance of the University was the Freedom of Information Act. The statements, of course, outraged those who believe that a lack of transparency has been the problem all a long.
But Goodwin may have a point.
According to UVA political science professor Larry Sabato, a vocal critic of the attempted ouster last summer, the Post piece was a "slice-of-life" that reported conditions on the Board that existed before its last meeting on February 22.
"That Board meeting changed the dynamics," says Sabato, "and I understand that, almost unanimously, Board members thought 65 goals for the President were about 55 too many.
"It would be a mistake," says Sabato, "to think that all the Board alignments of last June's unpleasantness have persisted."
Sabato suggests that Dragas' authority and influence on the Board may be fading, and that the Board members he knows are "eager to move past the current status quo."
"And that will happen automatically in four short months," he adds, alluding to the end of Dragas' term as rector on June 30.
Indeed, during the Board's last meeting, Sullivan scored big when a resolution was passed regarding faculty salary increases, which has been one of her top priorities. Last June, Dragas cited declining faculty compensation as a reason for a leadership change.
"Fortunately, the Board of Visitors at its meeting last week approved President Sullivan's proposal to increase faculty salaries, which Rector Dragas reportedly had deleted from her list of goals," yesterday's UVA Faculty Senate Statement read. "The Board also apparently approved a more reasonable set of presidential goals than the ones detailed by Rector Dragas. The Board continues to take steps to improve its internal governance processes. We applaud the Board's efforts and are eager to continue working with the Board in mutual commitment to the University's excellence."
"It's interesting that that was not included in the Rector's missive to the President," says Charlottesville Delegate David Toscano, mentioning faculty raises. He, along with Delegate Steve Landes, opposed Dragas' confirmation. "And it's not surprising," Toscano adds, "that she would continue trying to micromanage the University."
Like Sabato, though, Toscano thinks there is a "lame duck element" to Dragas' role as rector. Citing the faculty salary resolution, Toscano points out that the Board chose to throw its support behind the president.
"The president is on pretty firm ground, I think, and the Board seems generally supportive of her," he says. "I'm an eternal optimist, and I think the president will continue to lay out her vision and move the University forward."
At the Board's last meeting, Sullivan laid out some of that vision.
"We are not trying to move from mediocre to good, or from good to great," Sullivan told Board members at the February 22 meeting. "We are trying to move from great to greater. We have no peer institution to serve as a model for what we want to become, no single peer to which we can affix our aspirations, because our aspiration is to be something unique and greater than any of our peers. Our aspiration is to create a future version of this University that is better, stronger, and more innovative than our current self."
As Sabato and Toscano suggest, despite any personal tensions that may still exist between the president and rector, Dragas's actual authority and ability to sway the Board seems to have been diminished. Still, while her term as rector will end in June, she will be a regular Board member for three more years.
So, can we expect more tension between Dragas and Sullivan? Count on that pesky Freedom of Information Act to find out.