Over the course of 16 days, anger, confusion, and ultimately resolution washed over UVA’s Grounds in the turmoil following President Teresa Sullivan’s removal. Here’s the breakdown of the saga—one resignation and one reaction at a time at a time—from the moment the surprise announcement came to the day she was reinstated.
The bomb drops
Instead of enjoying brunch and the beautiful weather, the UVA community got a nasty shock on the morning of Sunday, June 10. Around 11:30am, Rector Helen Dragas sent an e-mail announcing President Teresa Sullivan’s resignation, effective August 15. Sullivan was quoted in the e-mail saying she and the Board have “philosophical differences,” and Dragas went into little detail about the decision.
Sunday afternoon was quiet while word spread and the community began to process, but the Faculty Senate responded the following day. Chairman George Cohen released a statement on Monday calling the Board’s explanation “inadequate and unsatisfactory.”
Revelations and reactions
On Tuesday, June 12, the Richmond Times Dispatch reported on a leaked e-mail from Darden School Foundation Chairman Peter Kiernan, in which he told his colleagues he had been sworn to secrecy about the decision to oust Sullivan, adding that the situation was under control. “Trust me,” he wrote, “Helen has things well in hand.” Meanwhile, alumnus Bob Eckerd created an online petition to reinstate Sullivan.
The next day, Dragas released a statement saying the Board fo Visitors had had an “ongoing dialogue with the President,” and asked the UVA community for support in in joining together “in partnership to create that bright future.” Suzie McCarthy, a UVA graduate student, created a Facebook group called “Students, Faculty, Family, & Friends United to Reinstate Sullivan,” which soon had more than 16,000 members. The Board announced it would have a meeting on Monday, June 18, to discuss candidates for the interim presidency.
A day later, Cohen released a resolution after the Executive Council met with Dragas that declared the Faculty Senate’s support for Sullivan and expressed a lack of confidence in the Board of Visitors. The same day, Peter Kiernan stepped down from his position with the Darden School Foundation.
The boiling point
Sullivan’s supporters began gathering on the Lawn around 2pm on Monday, June 18. Protestors held signs quoting Thomas Jefferson while Cohen spoke and reporters from publications all over the region took notes and photos. In a brief open session, Dragas read a four-page statement, apologizing for the past week’s turmoil but offering minimal explanation for the decision. Drama professor Gweneth West then read the statement Sullivan delivered to the Board, which received applause, laughter, and tears, and sounded very much like a goodbye. Sullivan herself then offered a few words to the crowd.
Many assumed the Board’s closed session would wrap up quickly. But the meeting went on until 2:30am, when the Board voted to appoint McIntire Dean Carl Zeithaml as interim president. Heywood Fralin cast the only “no” vote, and most Board members refused media comment following the meeting.
Though the Board came to a kind of conclusion during the marathon meeting, the drama on Grounds wasn’t over. Around the time Vice Rector Mark Kington announced his resignation from the Board of Visitors, computer science professor William Wulf and his wife Anita Jones resigned as well, and Wulf encouraged other faculty to follow suit.
Despite his hesitation to accept the “daunting” position as interim president, Zeithaml made himself available to the media and fielded questions about why he took the job and how he would move the University toward recovery. After the press conference, the Cavalier Daily released a series of e-mails between Dragas and Kington that detailed their thinking in the days before Sullivan’s resignation was announced.
Change of heart?
Eleven days after announcing Sullivan’s forced resignation, the Board of Visitors said it would meet again on Tuesday, June 26 to “discuss possible changes in the terms of employment of the president.” On the same day, 10 of the 11 University deans called for Sullivan’s reinstatement, and Dragas released a list of “difficult challenges” she said justified the Board’s actions.
Three days after accepting the position, Zeithaml announced on Friday, June 22, his decision to step aside and suspend all activities as interim president. Governor McDonnell stepped in, telling Board members to make a final decision Tuesday or he would ask for their resignations.
The weekend was mostly quiet as Wahoos anxiously awaited the meeting, but about 1,500 people gathered on the Lawn on Sunday for a “Rally for Honor,” during which several faculty members spoke and urged the Board to reconsider its position.
Reinstated and it feels so good
Sullivan’s supporters took over the Lawn one last time around 2:30pm Tuesday, June 26. As Sullivan and Dragas entered the Rotunda side by side, the crowd held a minute of silence for every day since Sullivan’s ousting, while reporters from news outlets all over the country, including the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly made themselves comfortable in the viewing room. After a quick 30-minute meeting and a unanimous Board vote, Sullivan emerged on the steps to address the crowd as UVA’s newly reinstated president.
But the president wasn’t the only one to receive word last week that she gets to keep her job. On Friday afternoon, Governor Bob McDonnell reappointed Dragas for another term on the Board of Visitors, saying that while he believed the Board had made mistakes under the much-criticized rector, “this is not a time for recrimination. It’s a time for reconciliation.”