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UVA Board Meeting Fuels Speculation Over Ousted President

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June 22 (Bloomberg) -- The University of Virginia board’s decision to meet next week is fueling speculation that it may reinstate Teresa Sullivan, the president who was ousted earlier this month.

Sullivan is scheduled to leave the college on Aug. 15, just two years into her presidency, and the board will meet on June 26 to discuss “possible changes” in her “terms of employment,” according to a statement yesterday by the university in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Unseating Sullivan has led to a nationally visible backlash at the university founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, spreading from the school’s campus, referred to locally as “Grounds,” to the state capital in Richmond. All eyes are focused on the board, which probably wouldn’t meet without a discussion of restoring Sullivan to her post, said John O’Brien, an associate professor of English who wants Sullivan restored.

“We are not counting our chickens yet, but it looks like the board is meeting to reinstate Sullivan,” O’Brien said.

Susan Harris, secretary to the university’s board of visitors, said yesterday that she doesn’t know what the board will discuss, other than what was announced in the statement.

The board is out of touch with the goals and culture of the university’s faculty, said William Wulf, who was one of 13 university professors on the faculty until he resigned June 19 in protest of Sullivan’s dismissal.

Not Victory

“Just discussing reinstatement is not a victory,” he said in a telephone interview. “If I were Terry, I’d demand the resignations of the majority of the board.”

In asking Sullivan to leave, the board was addressing longstanding challenges that face the university, led by financial pressures and outdated technology at the school, said Helen Dragas, who is rector, or head, of the board of visitors, in a statement yesterday.

Dragas outlined 10 issues that haven’t been addressed by the school over the past decade and require strategic planning. The issues include faculty compensation that isn’t keeping pace with competitors, higher faculty workloads, lower research financing and a need to improve communication with the public.

“I agree with critics who say that we should have handled the situation better,” she said in the statement. “In my view, we did the right thing, the wrong way.”

Sullivan, the university’s first female president, was forced out by Dragas and the board, who said they were frustrated by what they said was Sullivan’s slow approach to change. E-mails from Dragas show she was concerned the school was falling behind Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in offering online education.

Under Pressure

Governor Bob McDonnell is under pressure to jettison Dragas. Her term expires July 1 and can be renewed by McDonnell. If the governor doesn’t reappoint her, Sullivan, who was forced to resign on June 10, may have enough support on the board to be reinstated, said David Leblang, chairman of the department of politics.

McDonnell, a Republican, hasn’t disclosed his plans for Dragas’s future. Dragas, a real estate developer who has donated to both Republicans and Democrats, was first appointed to the board by Governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat, in 2008. She’s the university’s first female rector. All board members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state general assembly.

“One way or another, the governor owns this mess,” Leblang said. “We are lobbying our constituents, we are lobbying our alums.”

Popular Sentiment

State Delegate David Toscano, a Democrat representing Charlottesville, where the university is located, has called for McDonnell to ask for Dragas’s resignation. Popular sentiment is against Sullivan’s removal, and constituents might be upset if McDonnell doesn’t intervene, he said.

“I have not encountered one person, not one, who thinks the decision to force her resignation was a good one,” Toscano said in a telephone interview.

Sullivan called yesterday for civility in the debate over her dismissal.

“Emotions are running high on Grounds, but there is no excuse for abusing anyone with whom you disagree,” she said in a statement.

She asked in particular that Carl Zeithaml, named by the board as her interim replacement, and his family be spared from “abusive behavior,” according to a statement. Deans at 10 of the university’s 11 schools, along with the university librarian and dean of admissions, sent a letter to the board yesterday asking for Sullivan’s reinstatement.

“We recommend strongly that discussions begin immediately to reset the relationship with President Sullivan, reconstitute the team she had put together over that past year, and accelerate the important decisions to be made,” the deans said in the letter.

Zeithaml, who will remain dean of the McIntire School of Commerce until he becomes interim president on Aug. 16, wasn’t asked to sign the letter because of the “difficult position” it would put him in. Zeithaml has already said he opposes Sullivan’s removal.

To contact the reporter on this story: John Lauerman in Boston at jlauerman@bloomberg.net; Jeanna Smialek in New York at jsmialek@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at jkaufman17@bloomberg.net

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