University Uproar: Ouster of UVA President Draws Fire

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Sabrina Schaeffer / The Daily Progress / AP

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan addresses supporters following a Board of Visitors meeting at the Rotunda on Monday, June 18, 2012, in Charlottesville, Va.

The upheaval at the University of Virginia just keeps getting worse. A week after the sudden removal of the school's popular president, Teresa Sullivan, surprised not only the campus community but also Sullivan herself, the university's vice rector resigned as a result of the secretive proceedings as did at least one professor. "I do not wish to be associated with an institution being as badly run as the current UVA," William Wulf, a professor in the computer science department, wrote in the resignation letter he submitted on Tuesday.

Wulf says the final straw for him, after several days of confusion and outrage included students chanting in support of Sullivan and spray-painting the word "GREED" on the columns of the school's famed Rotunda building, was the board announcing its choice for interim president. The move came after the faculty issued a vote of no confidence in the board, which so far has failed to offer a sufficient explanation for why it pushed Sullivan out in the first place. "It was really the decision on the interim president that tipped me over the edge, that they named an interim without consulting us," Wulf told TIME. "The board has put UVA in a very bad position. I'm really sad about what they are doing to the university, but it also makes me angry. They think they know how to run a university, but they don't."

The tumult began June 10 when the school's trustees, who are known as the Board of Visitors (BOV), issued a short, cryptic statement announcing Sullivan's resignation. In the statement, the head of the board, university rector Helen Dragas, thanked Sullivan for her service but noted, "In a rapidly changing and highly pressurized external environment in both health care and academia, we believe that the university needs to remain at the forefront of change." In the week since, after an email was leaked suggesting a coup had been in the works for a while at the behest of two wealthy alumni, speculation has intensified over how much influence the university's biggest donors may have had in the ouster. "The reasons given for her resignation don't make any sense to us and the board doesn't seem to be able to elaborate on any of it," said chairman-elect of the faculty senate, Chris Holstege, an assistant professor of emergency medicine.

After the student newspaper submitted a FOIA request, the university released several emails from Dragas that indicate she and others were keenly aware of the attention several elite schools were getting for starting up massively open online courses, a trend that some experts say could up-end higher education. But regardless of whether that was the reason the board thought Sullivan needed to leave, the way the trustees handled the matter made the difficult task of firing a popular leader much harder. "Boards often hope they can put a cap on it and move forward — the king is dead, long live the king — but you can't always do that," says John Challenger, CEO of the outplacement consulting firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "The only way to avoid the brouhaha is if the popular president agrees to go quietly."

And Sullivan did not go quietly. On June 18, she delivered a lengthy statement in defense of her accomplishments to the board. "We are all aware that the UVA needs to change," she said in the statement. "Apparently, the area of disagreement appears to be just how that change should occur and at what pace."

"Sweeping action may be gratifying and may create an aura of strong leadership, but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear," she continued. "Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university."

The costs Sullivan referred to are things like recruiting and retaining faculty and attracting students as well as donor dollars. "Deans and provosts at every peer institution are setting aside funds now to raid the University of Virginia next year given the current turmoil on our campus," she said in her statement to the board.

Holstege of the faculty senate echoed her concerns. "My fear is what repercussions this will have on our hiring, on our current faculty — we've already heard of some resignations and of other faculty who are no longer planning to come here," he said. "It may also effect our recruitment of students. And certainly it will have an effect on donors."

It is likely not a coincidence that Holstege and Sullivan, amid speculation that her ouster was intended to keep a few donors happy, are talking about how this P.R. fiasco could lead to the university taking a big hit financially. The prospect of turning off donors may be the biggest dagger to the board's heart.