Was UVA COO Strine’s position untenable after failed Sullivan ouster?

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Michael Strine announced his resignation six weeks after Teresa Sullivan was reinstated as UVA President. Photo courtesy of UVA Public Affairs. Michael Strine announced his resignation six weeks after Teresa Sullivan was reinstated as UVA President. Photo courtesy of UVA Public Affairs.

Leonard Sandridge spent 44 years as chief operating officer of UVA. His successor, Michael Strine, was on the job for 13 months. Initially hailed as an effective leader whose experience as chief financial officer at Johns Hopkins could put the University and its medical center on firm financial footing, Strine’s brief tenure serves as a reminder of the collateral damage caused by the turmoil that shook Grounds over the summer after the failed ouster of President Teresa Sullivan.

Strine’s close professional relationships with Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington were laid bare in e-mails recently released under the Freedom of Information Act, and featured prominently in news reports during the two weeks prior to his abrupt resignation.

Dragas frequently made it clear she approved of Strine’s performance in e-mail exchanges, warmly praising his ability to manage the implementation of a new financial model that pushed budget decisions down to deans—sometimes at the expense of his predecessor, Leonard Sandridge. In February, she and Strine exchanged 11th-hour e-mails about a finance report.

“I’ll never complain about getting something at the last moment that in prior years I wouldn’t have gotten at all,” Dragas wrote. “Thanks for working so hard to fix a broken system.”

Strine often played the role of liaison between the administration and the Board, reporting back to Dragas and Kington about Sullivan’s feelings on various governance issues.

“Just a heads up in case Terry calls you about the matter,” Strine wrote to Dragas in November after Sullivan trumped a Board decision on just how recalcitrant the University should appear in a press release on the controversial removal of magnolia trees outside the Rotunda. “I made clear via e-mail that several board members were surprised and not happy with the statements that usurped decision making and were inconsistent with comments made in the recent meeting.”

In January, Strine and Sullivan shared a car to a meeting with state legislators in Richmond, and discussed a recent meeting with the UVA Board. “As we drove, Terry and I debriefed on yesterday’s meeting and the strategy document,” Strine’s e-mail to Dragas later that day reads. “I have some insights I can share.”

The e-mails show Strine and Dragas enjoyed a friendly personal relationship as well. Strine was invited to a post-Thanksgiving party at Dragas’ Keswick farm last year, and their families shared seats at a football game in January.

In the aftermath of the surprise announcement of Sullivan’s resignation, Strine took on a key role in controlling the official information coming from the University. On June 12, he circled the wagons in response to an interview request from a Washington Post reporter, coordinating a possible reply with Dragas, Kington, Provost John Simon, and top UVA spokesperson Carol Wood.

“I recommend it be a balanced conversation of academic and financial admin leadership (John and me) and perhaps one or both of you at the same time in the same meeting with key points we wish to make well thought out and articulated in advance,” he wrote.

But no amount of message control was able to keep the Board’s plan for a leadership shakeup on track. Sullivan was reinstated June 26, and six weeks later, it was Strine who was announcing his resignation. Strine’s wife, Sharon, also resigned last week from her position as senior director of strategic marketing in UVA’s Office of Development and Public Affairs.

What drove his decision to step down isn’t clear, as none of the official communications from UVA offered a reason. But because the abrupt announcement came shortly after news reports revealed Strine and Dragas’ close cooperation, and due to the language of Sullivan’s own statement upon Strine’s departure—that he “recently determined that it would be in the best interest of the University that he step down and allow me to do some necessary internal restructuring”—some speculate Sullivan wanted to clean house.

“We’re sort of reading tea leaves here,” said Virginia Assembly Minority Leader David Toscano, who publicly criticized the Board for its handling of the ouster. It’s hard to know how involved Strine was in the decision to force Sullivan out, and if questions over his loyalty drove the president to ask him to leave.

But Toscano pointed out that there’s precedent for the COO to work very closely with the Board. Sandridge did so, he said, and managed to remain on good terms with then UVA president John Casteen.

“It’s a very difficult line to walk, but it’s what makes the University work,” Toscano said.

UVA officials said last week that a search for someone to fill the critical role of top financial leader is underway. Toscano said he thinks the University will keep quiet on the matter from here on out. “I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of people making any more statements about this,” he said. “My feeling is people are trying to move forward.”

Dragas appears to be one of those people. Her only public comment following Strine’s resignation put her squarely in support of Sullivan’s desire to restructure. And compared to her earlier effusive praise, her statement following his resignation sounds almost chilly: “In his work as an officer of the Board of Visitors, Michael Strine brought to bear those leadership skills and enthusiasm referenced by President Sullivan,” she said. “We share her optimism that his commitment to higher education will serve him well in his future endeavors.”

Far cry from the tone set by a note she sent Kington in April, when they were hashing out an upcoming Board presentation that Strine was set to present.

“Where would we be without Michael?” she wrote.

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