Virginia Echoes Harvard as Faculty Rises Up to Rehire President

Ousted University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan
The ousted-President of the University of Virginia Teresa Sullivan. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

From a hotel in San Diego, where he was attending a family wedding, University of Virginia Law Professor George Cohen heard about the unprecedented ouster of President Teresa Sullivan after less than two years in office.

Cohen, recently installed as head of the faculty senate, fired up his new iPad. Over the next week, he and his colleagues called, e-mailed and coordinated an irate faculty, a response that tomorrow may result in the equally unparalleled reinstatement of Sullivan as the university’s leader.

“This was something done in a secretive way with little warning,” Cohen said, as a president was tossed out for the first time in the history of the university without a full vote of the board. “There was a very strong concern about the way this was done.”

UVA’s ruling body, largely made up of business people such as MacDonald Caputo, advisory director at Morgan Stanley, and Timothy Robertson, chief executive officer at Bay Shore Enterprises LLC, failed to recognize that the faculty would demand a voice in its own leadership. The board and its rector, Helen Dragas, also erred in trying to administer a collegial environment like a corporation, professors and advocates said.

“It was shocking in the university community,” Cohen said. “People were asking ‘Is it the opening salvo in what the future of higher education is going to look like?’”

Cohen said he hasn’t spoken directly to Sullivan since the crisis began.

Harvard Lessons

Such a revolt hasn’t been seen on a college campus since the 2006 ouster of Lawrence Summers as president of Harvard University. Summers stepped down as faculty were preparing a second no-confidence vote in objection to his autocratic work style and comments he made suggesting that women lacked an aptitude for science. Summers later became director of the National Economic Council under President Barack Obama. He still teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The furor at the Charlottesville-based university may serve as a lesson to other schools trying to push through fiscal changes amid state budget cuts and a debate over rising student debt. Appointed boards at other schools may come under scrutiny because of Virginia’s ordeal, said David Leblang, chairman of the university’s Department of Politics.

“Higher education is not the same as an accounting firm,” he said. “It’s a very different model.”

The University of Virginia, founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, has descended into chaos since Sullivan’s forced resignation on June 10.

Campus Chaos

Since then, students have demonstrated, hurled insults at Dragas and interim President Carl Zeithaml and spray-painted graffiti in the famous Rotunda that Jefferson modeled after Rome’s Pantheon. The turmoil was calmed only by Sullivan, who issued a plea for restraint, reminding the university community that civility lies at the heart of Virginia’s culture.

Governor Bob McDonnell ordered the 15-member board to make a final decision on whether to keep Sullivan by tomorrow, or he’ll demand the resignations of all of them. While he commended aspects of Dragas’s plan to cut costs and move into online learning -- the point of contention between her and Sullivan -- he condemned the process by which Sullivan was dispatched, without the required two-thirds majority vote of the board.

“This was a perfect example of failed governance,” said Richard Legon, the president of the Association of Governing Boards, a Washington-based group that represents 40,000 university trustees. “Boards have the legal responsibility to make tough calls and tough decisions, but they need to be aware that they act in the environment where there’s a larger community.”

No Applicants

If Sullivan isn’t reinstated, the university may have a difficult time finding a new president, said English professor John Casey. He said he expects candidates for the job would be scared away by the possibility of being removed in a similar fashion.

“It looks very unstable if Dragas stays,” he said.

The events over the past two weeks highlight the differences between Sullivan, 62, a sociologist who spent more than three decades at public universities, and business-minded real-estate developer Dragas.

Dragas, 50, is president and chief executive officer of Dragas Cos., a Virginia Beach-based homebuilder, and was appointed to the board in 2008 by then-Governor Tim Kaine, a Democrat. She was named rector, or head of the board, in 2011. She received a bachelor’s degree from the university in 1984 and a master’s degree in business in 1988.

Sullivan vs. Dragas

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

Paul Tudor Jones II, CEO of Tudor Investment Corp. and one of Virginia’s top donors, criticized Sullivan’s business acumen in a June 17 opinion piece in the Daily Progress newspaper, saying “UVA needs proactive leadership to match the pace of change.”

Sullivan earned her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University and a doctoral degree in sociology from the University of Chicago.

She spent 27 years at the University of Texas, before becoming provost at the University of Michigan. During her academic posts, she continued to publish, writing “The Fragile Middle Class” in 2001 with Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law School professor now running for a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts.

Faculty Mindset

Those credentials helped fuel faculty support for her, Cohen said, recalling a faculty senate meeting where Sullivan mentioned she had just finished editing an academic article.

“It really struck a chord,” he said. “Here’s someone who thinks like a faculty member.”

At Michigan, Sullivan was popular with deans and the faculty, said Paul Courant, who preceded her as provost at the school in Ann Arbor.

“She was a successful university administrator who paid a lot of attention to long term-issues that might affect the university,” said Courant, who holds named professorships in economics and public policy. “I always thought she was very good at managing up, which made this event surprising to me.”

Openness, Inquiry

Sullivan has brought “a level of openness, a level of inquiry,” to Virginia, said Robert Sweeney, senior vice president for development and public affairs. He and other staff members often gathered at her dining-room table to discuss everything from UVA’s overseas presence to education philosophy. He said she is respected for helping others collaborate, and that is why faculty have rallied behind her.

“Our faculty has been galvanized and unified in a way that I have never seen them,” he said.

The core issue at Virginia may have been the speed and direction of change, as business-focused trustees have a different sense of urgency than academics do, said Richard Chait, a research professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies college governance.

“One day Circuit City is the No. 1 electronics retailer, and one day they’re out of business,” Chait said. “That doesn’t happen in higher education.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE