Sullivan supporters struggle to assert power as rift grows

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Hundreds gathered in Darden’s Abbott Auditorium Sunday to hear the Faculty Senate support a resolution expressing a lack of confidence in UVA’s Board of Visitors, the latest development in a backlash following University President Teresa Sullivan’s resignation. (Photo by Graelyn Brashear) 

Among the conspiracy theories and questionable motives surrounding UVA President Teresa Sullivan’s surprise resignation, one truth has emerged: Students, faculty, and alumni are furious. An undeniable rift has formed between them and the select inner circle behind the decision to oust the president, and Sullivan’s supporters are coming together to test the waters and leverage any power they have.

Members of the UVA community began expressing confusion, disapproval and anger immediately after Rector Helen Dragas issued word of the resignation on June 10, but the Faculty Senate was the first to offer a resolution stating its disapproval of the Board’s decision. Chair George Cohen sent a letter to the Board of Visitors last Thursday, expressing the Faculty Senate’s support of President Sullivan and its lack of confidence in the Board, rector and vice rector.

“The faculty are completely up in arms and upset, and understandably, about what this means about the future role of the Board in the financial governance of the University,” Cohen said last week. He called Sullivan “a breath of fresh air,” and said she was always open to faculty views—in contrast with the Board of Visitors’ apparent lack of interest in faculty opinion.

On Sunday, about 800 attendees gathered to watch the Faculty Senate pass its resolution in a near-unanimous vote before spilling out into a courtyard to caucus. And the rank and file weren’t the only ones who took the opportunity to speak out. Provost John Simon, one of Sullivan’s top deputies, opened the meeting by distancing himself from the Board of Visitors’ decision, going so far as to hint that unless it comes clean about its motivations, he may resign himself.

“I am now wondering whether my own beliefs about the values of higher education are consistent with our Board’s,” he said in a brief speech that won him a standing ovation.
Delegate David Toscano, a Charlottesville resident and the Virginia General Assembly’s minority leader, joined the crowd Sunday and said he wanted to see Governor Robert McDonnell pressure the Board to reverse its decision. “If he makes his opinion known, it will have an impact,” Toscano said.

Drama professor Gweneth West said the anger within the teaching community has highlighted a long-standing issue: There is no faculty representation on the Board, even though there is a student member. To the faculty, she said, that meant “the Board thought the students’ voice was more important than ours.”

“I would like to go on the record in noting that they met with the students yesterday. Not with us,” she said.

West emphasized her faith in the student body and the faculty’s dedication to those they teach.

“Students are why we’re here,” she said. Professors understand their position and mission in regards to the students, West said, but who are they to the Board? And what does this disconnect between the Board and faculty members mean for the students and the University as a whole?

Medical professor Chris Holstege said his biggest concern was maintaining and attracting quality professors.

“I’ve had faculty e-mail me and say ‘I’m resigning next weekend; I’m done with this university,’” he said.

Being there for the students is the faculty’s number one-priority, but he admitted that if he were on the outside, in search of a position, he would not come to UVA.

“The president’s gone, there’s a rift in the faculty—it’s a disaster,” he said.

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