Turmoil at UVA

University of Virginia

University of Virginia

Anyone following the unprecedented story unfolding at UVA will certainly be tuning in on Tuesday, as the school’s Board of Visitors will meet to “reconsider the controversial forced resignation of President Teresa Sullivan,” Inside Higher Ed reports.

It all began the weekend of June 9th, when the Executive Committee of the Board of Visitors (BOV), seemingly out of the blue, announced that they had voted to end Sullivan’s presidency, and that she will be leaving on August 15th. This news was met with such an uproar from the alumni, students, faculty members, and some lawmakers that the full Faculty Senate approved a vote of no confidence in the rector and vice rector of the BOV.

The BOV then held a 12-hour meeting, which was protested by about 2,000 students and faculty members. Sullivan made a statement to the board, in which she noted that in the wake of the controversy, she had done her best to keep a low profile. As she articulated, “I did not cause this reaction in the last ten days, but perhaps the reaction speaks to the depth of the connections I have made in the last 22 months.” The meeting concluded with the board’s decision to appoint Carl Zeithaml, dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, as interim president.

BOV Rector Helen E. Dragas has addressed some of the issues related to Sullivan’s mysterious removal, expressing that “the Board of Visitors has been concerned about the following difficult challenges facing the University—most of which are not unique to UVA—and we concluded that their structural and long-term nature demanded a deliberate and strategic approach, not an incremental one.” In contrast, Sullivan called herself an incrementalist in her statement to the board, arguing that this approach is the “best, most constructive, most long lasting, and beneficial way to change a university.”

Whose vision will win out? As Inside Higher Ed deduces, “In some sense, the board’s vote on Tuesday will be a referendum on the speed of the changes the university will undergo over the next few years. That decision, given UVA’s prominence among research universities, particularly public flagships, could reverberate through the sector.” And with this decision, chances are either Dragas or Sullivan (or both) will be out. Dragas is up for reappointment as rector at the end of June, along with one other member, and three vacant seats on the board will be filled. As for Sullivan, it isn’t clear whether she would even choose to remain in her job if the board reverses its decision.

Perhaps a message from the deans of UVA sums it up best:

The determination of the BOV to stick to their plans for the stewardship of the University is extremely admirable, and speaks to a genuine and deep concern for the institution’s welfare and future […]. However, it is clear after nearly two weeks of outrage, indignation, upset, threats of withdrawal of support and loyalty, that the people of the University of Virginia, and their ideas, which together comprise the University much more than buildings or landscapes, regard the decision as a mistake made in the absence of open discourse and courtesy. A reconsideration of the actions by both the BOV and President Sullivan can change what will surely have long-term adverse effects on the University [and how it is viewed both inside and outside the walls], into an instructive lesson on the powers of thoughtfulness, reconsideration, fairness, and the powers of an open mind as advocated by our founder.

UPDATE: Teresa Sullivan, the ousted president of the University of Virginia, was unanimously reinstated as president of the school by the Board of  Visitors on the afternoon of June 26, 2012.

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