UVA Reunites as Board Reinstates President Sullivan

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan
Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Unity returned to the University of Virginia after student, faculty and alumni protests led its embattled board to reinstate ousted President Teresa Sullivan by unanimous vote.

The Board of Visitors also expressed confidence yesterday in their leader, Rector Helen Dragas, who had led the drive to force Sullivan’s resignation on June 10.

“I pledge to set aside any differences we might have and to work hand-in-hand with Rector Dragas and all members of the Board of Visitors as we face the challenges that have been articulated -- and find solutions that will further distinguish the university,” Sullivan, 62, said in a statement after the vote.

The university plunged into turmoil after Sullivan was pushed out less than two years into her presidency. The decision to oust her occurred without the required two-thirds majority vote of the board. Since then, the faculty senate passed a vote of no confidence in the board, 10 university deans called for Sullivan’s reinstatement and thousands of students demonstrated in her support.

Dragas, 50, wanted to replace Sullivan with a leader who would push for steeper cost cutting and move toward online learning. Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington, who resigned last week, exchanged e-mails related to Sullivan’s ouster in the days and weeks before it was announced. Dragas made statements detailing the board’s rationale after Sullivan’s resignation.

Rector Apologizes

The board “never wished nor intended to ignite such a reaction from the community of trust and honor that we love so dearly,” Dragas said before the vote in the Charlottesville campus’s historic Rotunda, designed by founder Thomas Jefferson. “I sincerely apologize for the way that this was presented and you deserve better.”

Heywood Fralin, chief executive officer of Medical Facilities of America Inc. and the one board member who voted against Sullivan’s dismissal, introduced the motion to reinstate her at yesterday’s meeting. Fralin, who served as rector from 2007 to 2009, said that the entire board, including Dragas, acted with integrity and according to their own aspirations for the university’s future.

“We don’t have to agree, but we should respect the integrity of each member,” he said at the meeting, which was webcast live from the campus.

All of the board’s members knew that Dragas and Kington planned to meet with Sullivan and ask for her resignation before it occurred, Fralin said. He apologized for failing to call for a special board meeting at the time to discuss the issue further.

Governor’s Demand

The storm over Sullivan’s dismissal spread to the Virginia capital. Governor Bob McDonnell, who appoints the board’s members, ordered them last week to make a final decision on Sullivan by yesterday or resign themselves.

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. He later became director of the National Economic Council under President Barack Obama, and still teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The atmosphere on the Virginia campus, locally referred to as Grounds, has already changed, said John Miller, chairman of the Department of Classics, who watched the reinstatement meeting online. Several hundred people gathered on the lawn outside the Rotunda as the board meeting took place, he said.

Voices Heard

“The board heard the voices of the faculty, alumni, students, and just realized that this was the best thing to do,” said George Cohen, chairman of the university’s faculty senate. The crowd cheered when the board’s vote was announced, he said.

Sullivan, Virginia’s first female president, 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, where she was popular with deans and the faculty and noted for collaboration, said Paul Courant, who preceded her as provost.

Dragas is president and CEO of Dragas Cos., a real estate development company. She grew up in Virginia, attended both undergraduate and graduate school at UVA, and is the daughter of George Dragas Jr., a former rector of the Board of Visitors.

Dragas said she and Sullivan met before the board convened and agreed that it was time for the university to reunite.

Sullivan’s reappointment will help the university face important issues in higher education, and the unanimous vote helps bring the matter to a close, said Virginia Delegate David Toscano, a Democrat from Charlottesville who opposed the way the board removed her.

“It is a very sunny day for UVA, and for higher education in the Commonwealth,” Toscano said.

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