Dragas claims concerns justified Sullivan's ouster; faculty remain unconvinced

Supporters of UVA President Teresa Sullivan gather at the third rally on the Lawn in less than a week. A rising tide of anger over the Board of Visitors’ decision to force Sullivan’s resignation has led to demands for her reinstatement and for more faculty input in University governance. (Photo by Cole Geddy/UVA Public Affairs)

In the two weeks of turmoil that have followed the surprise announcement that UVA President Teresa Sullivan would step down in August, the University community has tried to understand why the Board of Visitors decided to force a popular president out of office just two years after appointing her.

The closest they’ve gotten to an answer is a 10-point list released by Rector Helen Dragas last Thursday, detailing serious challenges the University faces. As Sullivan’s supporters rallied for her reinstatement, they criticized the rationale offered for her ouster for raising more questions than it answers—and for its long delay in coming.

Dragas’ list outlines the “very high hurdles” the University faces: declining state and federal funding, no existing plan for online learning, a medical center and financial aid program that are sucking up resources, a need to retain faculty and land big gifts, and a lack of accountability for academic quality.

The implication, of course, was that Sullivan wasn’t cutting it as a top administrator. “We deserve better—the rapid development of a plan that includes goals, costs, sources of funds, timelines and individual accountability,” Dragas wrote.

But in the months before she was forced to resign, Sullivan had offered her own explanations of the University’s challenges and detailed her plans to meet them. In a memo penned in early May and in recent interviews, she beat the Board to the punch on a number of issues, and supporters say her shrewd take undermines critics’ condemnation of her leadership.

On numerous occasions this spring, Sullivan addressed the difficulty of recruiting and retaining faculty—a key concern listed in Dragas’ statement. In her memo, Sullivan acknowledged that the University’s recruitment process is “less than adequate,” and in a Q&A with UVA Today in March, she said stagnating compensation was making it harder to hold on to professors.

“We’re asking a lot of loyalty from that faculty member to stay here when they’re leaving money on the table,” she said. “So that’s certainly a risk.”

As she later pointed out, Sullivan just oversaw the first faculty pay raise in four years, but she said the issue is about more than bigger paychecks. In May, she suggested that fellowships designed to help faculty improve their teaching, coupled with an emphasis on marketing the University’s best qualities, could make it a more attractive employer.

Dragas also implied Sullivan’s fundraising skills were lacking. There have been a few big donations to fund new squash courts and a center for the study of yoga and other contemplative sciences, she said, but there hasn’t been “a specific vision and plan” for going after major gifts to support “central institutional priorities.”

Sullivan seemed to anticipate that dig. In her own statement in the wake of her forced resignation, she reminded the Board that she had overseen a 15.6 percent increase in giving since her arrival in 2010. “Fundraising takes time,” she wrote. “A new President first has to meet donors and establish trust and rapport.”

Sullivan’s May memo also explained her budget reforms, which are already in motion: she implemented an “internal financial model” that pushed financial decisions from central administration down to the deans of the University’s schools, encouraging accountability, she said, and allowing leaders to put their heads together and collaborate on cost-cutting and shared projects.

In her statement last week, Sullivan unapologetically called those cost-saving measures “small bets,” doubling down on her commitment to incremental change. Dragas has insisted rapid, sweeping reforms are necessary at UVA, but Sullivan has stuck to her guns: a slow approach is the sensible way to trim waste and plan expansion at a great institution, because “no single initiative will do serious damage if it doesn’t work out.”

(photo by Dan Addison/UVA Public Affairs)

As for concerns over having enough resources to support the medical center and AccessUVA, the school’s financial aid program—both of which divert a lot of resources from the rest of the University—Sullivan’s memo points out that separate strategic planning efforts to tackle both have been underway since 2010. And while Sullivan hasn’t publicly supported the kind of online learning initiatives Dragas has said will be important in the future, she did give reasons for her caution: “Online instruction is no panacea,” she said last week. “It is surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential, and unless carefully managed, can undermine the quality of instruction.”

The fact that the ousted president was already tackling many of the Board’s stated concerns—and, judging by her own surprise at being forced out, hadn’t been told to redirect her efforts—has led some Sullivan supporters see Dragas’ detailed statement as a brush-off at best.

It didn’t satisfy Darden professor Elizabeth Powell, who joined a number of faculty members in calling for Sullivan’s reinstatement at a Sunday rally on the Lawn. “What I’m concerned by is the generality of [Dragas’] analysis,” Powell said—they’re the same concerns every big state school is facing.

And Powell echoed a criticism shared by many of her colleagues in recent days: The explanation is incomplete. A list of concerns is one thing, but it doesn’t answer their key question—what was their president doing that was so wrong it called for her dismissal after only two years?

“My fear is that it’s a post-hoc rationale,” Powell said, a document drawn up to justify a decision already made by a handful of Board members behind closed doors. And if those who unseated Sullivan did have good plans for strengthening the University, the feeling is their top-down approach set them back severely.

“The behavior of the Board discredits any strategy that they’re putting forth,” said Powell.

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