Teresa Sullivan is back, but the pressure is still on

UVA President Teresa Sullivan keeps her job and gets a raise. Photo: UVA University Communications UVA President Teresa Sullivan keeps her job and gets a raise. Photo: UVA University Communications

The Dragas-gate scandal and its tight-lipped aftermath shifted attention away from the fact that UVA President Teresa Sullivan was brought in as a fixer. A scholar with an impeccable resume and serious administrative chops armed with experience at two massive and successful state universities, Texas and Michigan, was tapped to lead a small, prestigious public flagship school through the Scylla and Charybdis of declining state funding and the American public’s inability to support neverending tuition increases. She was likely told from the start that her job was to make tough decisions, and she probably got the job because she could successfully identify them before she arrived.

In retrospect, Orange June looks a lot like an imperial struggle that took on a life of its own in a personality-based endgame. There is little doubt to me that major (and silent) players among the administration, the alumni, and the Board of Visitors supported Dragas in trying to wrest control from a new president whose priorities were seen to be too academic, too focused on the college, not clear-eyed enough about the financial dangers facing the University. The tactics doomed the plot, and Sullivan returned, but the factions persist.

Throughout the drama this summer, both sides claimed to serve the Founder’s Vision and the Future. On June 18, as Sullivan addressed the BOV for the first time since her departure, she said, “In 1816, our founder Thomas Jefferson said, ‘as new discoveries are made, new truth discovered and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.’”

Sullivan, it seems, never addresses the press without invoking Jefferson’s name, usually in a more intelligent way than other people can manage. But here’s the reason it grates, particularly when we’re talking about the financial challenges facing the University: Thomas Jefferson never could have imagined a $1 billion medical center or the fact that his little college would one day be bled dry by the state and exist at the center of a constellation of privately-funded graduate schools. This weeks’ feature looks at why academic medical centers all over the country are struggling to support their operating budgets in the face of declining Medicare reimbursements, climbing clinical costs, industry consolidation, and looming health care reforms–a tricky equation recently departed Executive Vice President Michael Strine was supposed to solve.