UVA president Teresa Sullivan's resignation shocks community

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Teresa Sullivan, UVA’s first female president, will be stepping down after just two years on August 15. (Photo by Dan Addison/UVA Public Affairs)

After just two years as President of the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan is stepping down in what the University Board of Visitors is calling a “mutual decision.” News releases from UVA leaders offered little insight into the surprise decision, leaving many in the University community wondering what happened and what’s next.

Around 11:30am Sunday, students and faculty received an e-mail from UVA Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington announcing that Sullivan would resign on August 15. Sullivan, who was quoted in the e-mail, said she and the Board had “a philosophical difference in opinion,” but didn’t elaborate.

At an emergency meeting with vice presidents and deans later the same day, Dragas briefly discussed the budgetary hardships faced by the Board and implied a difference of priorities between members and President Sullivan.

“We have calls internally for resolution of tough financial issues that require hard decisions in resource allocation,” Dragas wrote in a memo summarizing the meeting that was posted on UVAToday. She said the compensation of UVA’s employees is continuing to decline, and the challenge of filling vacated spots is “truly an existential threat to the greatness of UVA.”
The Board still has personal respect for Sullivan, she wrote, but indicated it wants a leader who is more bold and proactive on tackling difficult decisions.

“We are living in a time of rapidly accelerating change in both academia as well as in health care,” Dragas said at a press conference on Sunday. “That environment, we believe, calls for a different approach to leadership.”

With so few details provided by leaders, students and faculty are concerned about what the future holds.

Faculty Senate Chair George Cohen, a UVA law professor, said his colleagues’ response has been one of universal shock. 

"It’s a complete surprise," he said. "The faculty are completely up in arms and upset, and understandably concerned about what this means about the future role of the Board and the future governance of the University. In our experience on the Faculty Senate, we had a great working relationship with President Sullivan. We worked well her, and we thought we had a great leader and someone who was going to be able to move forward."

In its letter to the board, the Senate said it intends to investigate Sullivan’s resignation, and plans to meet with the Board soon to share faculty views. 

According to Sunday’s letter from Dragas, the Board of Visitors will “move expeditiously to name an interim president and to begin a search for a new leader.” Dragas said more details regarding the search will emerge over the next few weeks. 

Emily Filler, a PhD candidate in Jewish Studies and an active member of the UVA Living Wage Campaign, an advocate group for fair wages for all University employees, said the news was shocking, but the lack of information provided wasn’t.

“I wouldn’t mind reminding the world that this Board operates with a tremendous amount of non-transparency,” she said.

Filler did not speculate on any reasoning behind the announcement, but remains concerned about the University’s financial strategies and decision-making process.

“It’s hard to find out with any degree of certainty what the Board’s budget priorities are, and how they go about making those priorities,” she said.

The Faculty Senate reacted Monday with a letter to the Board demanding "a full and candid explanation of this sudden and drastic change in University leadership."  

In her closing remarks on Sunday, she said the Board appreciated Sullivan’s efforts, and thanked the University leaders for their work in “making her presidency a success.”

“We wanted it to work as well,” she said. “That certainly would have been easier on all of us.”

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