One year on: What’s changed at UVA since the meltdown over Dragas-gate?

The University of Virginia. Photo:  Dan Addison/UVA Public Affairs The University of Virginia. Photo: Dan Addison/UVA Public Affairs

This story’s publication date marks a year to the day that UVA’s Board of Visitors defied public outcry for the reinstatement of ousted president Teresa Sullivan by holing up in the Rotunda for 11 hours and doubling down on its decision to force her out. It took eight more days for the University’s governing body to reverse its decision, but the fallout is still being felt.

“Looking back a year out, it was really all about shared governance,” said Walt Heinecke, a Curry School professor who helped reform UVA’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in the wake of last summer’s events.

The Faculty Senate, Heinecke’s group, and outspoken individuals like media professor Siva Vaidhyanathan kept the pressure on in the months that followed. The latest public statements from Sullivan and Rector Helen Dragas in dual interviews to the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this month point to reconciliation, but did faculty members’ calls for reform move the needle? Heinecke thinks so.

“There have been some small steps in the right direction,” he said. The Board of Visitors agreed to allow faculty representatives to consult on Board committees, for one. “They also changed the rules on the FOIA”—the Freedom of Information Act —“so any major decision like firing the president has to be at a public meeting.”

George Cohen, who has chaired the Faculty Senate for the last year and just handed the reins to MD and associate professor Christopher Holstege, said communication has improved. But there’s more work to do, he said, and it boils down to two things: Giving the faculty a concrete role in the evaluation of the president, and getting a faculty member on the Board itself, even if it’s a non-voting position. Without a diversity of views and voices around the table, the Board won’t get the whole picture of the school or its leadership, he said, and it will be doomed to make the same mistakes.

“I think that would be a reasonable response to what happened last summer, to try to fix it, and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

The AAUP agrees. Last month, the national organization released a report on best practices for faculty communication with university governing boards, and it points to UVA as an example of what can go wrong when the relationship falters. Its specific recommendations echo those coming from the University’s professors: Give faculty a voice on the board; provide venues for informal, unstructured give-and-take; and listen to them when it comes to choosing leadership.

To those who say it’s time to quit talking about the fallout from last June—and he got just such a dressing-down from newly appointed Vice-Rector William Goodwin last fall—Cohen has a reply: Check your notes. When Baltimore-based consulting firm Art & Science Group delivered its commissioned analysis of the University last month, it warned about damage to the school’s reputation. “They mention the fact that when they talked to outside leaders, without prompting, a number of them expressed concerns about governance issues at the University,” said Cohen.

It’s unsurprising that faculty members in particular are still talking about the ouster and its ripple effects, said Heinecke. “We can’t think of this as isolated at UVA,” he said. “There’s a larger context here. There are nationwide stresses of market-based corporatized governance, and the relationship to traditional notions of public universities’ missions.” The central question, he said, is whether corporate governance can coexist with robust civic engagement: Does higher ed live in a market, or a polis?

If they’ve got an opinion on that, faculty members need to speak up, he said. If they don’t, “decisions will be made for them.”

Administrative shake-up

In the wake of Sullivan’s abrupt resignation, each week seemed to bring news of another high-profile departure. So where are those who stepped down during the debacle now?

Mark Kington

Former Vice-Rector Kington’s swift and mostly silent departure from the Board of Visitors on June 19, just hours after the Board approved the appointment of an interim president, McIntire School professor Carl Zeithaml, remains one of the bigger blind spots in the Sullivan saga. At the time, Kington—Dragas’ closest ally on the board and, based on e-mails between them, co-engineer of the ouster—offered no real clues about his motivation for leaving.

Kington’s involvement with “the troubles” appears not to have bled over into the rest of his working life. He continues to serve on a number of governing bodies, including the Board of Directors of Dominion Power, and according to his bios from those groups, he’s still running X-10 Capital Management, his Alexandria-based hedge fund.

William A. Wulf

Bill Wulf, a longtime computer science professor and the former president of the National Academy of Engineering, made headlines when he became the first—and, ultimately, the only—UVA professor to publicly resign over the Board’s attempt to force Sullivan out. “A BOV that so poorly understands UVA, and academic culture more generally, is going to make a lot more dumb decisions, so the University is headed for disaster, and I don’t want to be any part of that,” he wrote in his resignation letter, sent to then-interim president Carl Zeithaml on June 19, the same day Kington stepped down.

Wulf stuck to his guns, even after Sullivan was reinstated, saying many of the governance issues he was concerned about persisted. And reached at his home in Free Union last week, he said he regrets nothing, but thinks little has changed. “I think the fundamental problem is as deep as it was the day they fired her,” he said.

Wulf isn’t entirely cut off from UVA, though. He was permitted to keep an office in his old department, and he said the University has been “very gracious” in allowing him to remain involved in faculty matters.

Peter D. Kiernan 

Kiernan, the former chair of the Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees who resigned after sending a widely-circulated e-mail boasting of inside knowledge of the ouster ahead of Sullivan’s resignation, has kept a very low profile since the events of last spring. Right up to his own blunder, he was an active self-promoter, having embarked on a post-Goldman Sachs career as an economic expert, pundit, and media personality. But the last blog entry on his website—set up to tout his February 2012 book, which carries the delightful title Becoming China’s Bitch—was posted on June 7 of last year, three days before he sent his fateful e-mail.

He quit the Foundation board less than a week later, and has seemingly distanced himself, at least on the face of things, from the happenings at his alma mater. But his name is still attached to his own venture capital firm as well as the boards of two charities—the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and the Robin Hood Foundation.

Michael Strine

As UVA’s former Chief Operating Officer, Strine’s was the most significant administrative resignation following the ouster attempt, coming a little over a month after Sullivan was reinstated. E-mails revealed that the former Chief Operating Officer had a close working relationship with Dragas in the months preceding the effort to force Sullivan out, leading to plenty of speculation about his loyalty.

These days, he’s still in financial management, but for a very different kind of institution. Last month, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York named Strine an executive vice president, making him head of its Corporate Group and its “principal financial officer.”