Details of UVA President Teresa Sullivan’s resignation continue to trickle out in the days following the surprise announcemeuvant of her coming departure, but leaders remain quiet about the reason she was pushed out—and a former University president says the lack of transparency from the Board of Visitors on the issue is troubling.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch and Daily Progress reported Tuesday that Darden School Foundation chair Peter Kiernan e-mailed fellow "directors" to say he’d been party to the decision to oust Sullivan, and that the Board hadn’t voted on the matter. Instead, he said, Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington met with Sullivan privately Friday and told her they could muster enough Board votes to force her to resign. They agreed then that she would step down of her own accord.
Robert O’Neil said he was concerned by the lack of explanation from the Board, and by the closed-door culture it implies. He served as UVA president from 1985 until 1990, when he, too, found himself at odds with members of the Board—in part because of questions over how to deal with tough financial decisions. His experience stepping down was vastly different from Sullivan’s, however.
"I had differences with some members of the Board, but for the most part, our relationship was cordial," said O’Neil, who retired from his position as head of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression five years ago. Ultimately, he gave up his seat and moved to a leadership position with the newly founded Thomas Jefferson Center. But his leave-taking took months, and he worked closely with his successor, John T. Casteen, to ensure a smooth transition.
"I’m struck by the apparent suddenness, if not urgency, of the change in Terry’s status," O’Neil said. "Even if there was a clear mandate for change, it would not be logical. There are lots of things that need to be done during the transition."
The way the issue was handled and the rift it’s apparently generated between UVA leaders and faculty could be seriously unhealthy for the University, he said, and could affect the search for a replacement for Sullivan—assuming the Board doesn’t have someone waiting in the wings.
"What person would be comfortable taking on such a position under these circumstances?" he said. "I think this issue is going to continue to cause problems. There could be some scar tissue."