HOLMBERG: Clumsy ouster of U.Va. president may renew her tenure

Posted at 11:54 PM, Jun 21, 2012
and last updated 2012-06-22 11:02:23-04

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WTVR) - On Thursday, University of Virginia’s governing board announced that next Tuesday it would reconsider their controversial ouster of President Teresa Sullivan earlier this month.

That forced resignation, which included a nearly half-million dollar parachute, was a surprise move that has created a growing avalanche of resistance, including resigning professors, protesting students, criticism from a former governor.

Even the selected interim president has said the ouster was a mistake.

Richmond state Delegate Joe Morrissey demanded the board of visitors explain to the General Assembly why and how they went about getting rid of Sullivan, the university’s eighth president and the first female. She has served just two years – hardly time to unpack by U.Va. standards.

“I’m glad that they did it,” Morrissey said when hearing of the shift by U.Va.'s Board of Visitors. “You know, what troubled most people was that they didn’t know what was going on.  They hadn’t heard what the reasoning was for requesting her dismissal.”

That and some controversial inside-the-board moves that came to light led to one board member resigning.

The issue with Sullivan was the board’s desire to shift gears at the historic and tradition-bound university, including establishing online education – something even Ivy League universities have embraced – and modernizing course offerings and majors.

President Sullivan was seen as standing on the brakes instead of accelerating the changes.

Her unexpected and somewhat clumsy ouster appears to have significantly boosted the popularity of the soft-spoken president known to immerse herself in academia.

Emerging as the bad guy has been a Tim Kaine appointee to the board, Rector Helen Dragas. She’s known as get-her-done businesswoman unafraid of tackling tough problems. A Thursday profile of her in the Washington Post detailed her past and her successful leadership of her family’s construction firm in eastern Virginia.

But even Tim Kaine is criticizing the ouster, and Dragas herself said in a statement Thursday, “In my view, we did the right thing, the wrong way.”

It appears likely the board has enough votes to reinstate Sullivan.

CBS-6 spoke with Governor Bob McDonnell Thursday evening. He declined to say whether he had spoken to any of his appointees on the 16-member board.

“The Board of Visitors has got to run the university and make the right decisions for the university in what they think is the best short- and long-term interests of the university,” McDonnell said after a ceremony honoring members of Virginia law enforcement who died last year.

“I don’t tend to instruct anybody on how to vote. We have incredibly talented, gifted people on the board. They were appointed by both Tim Kaine and I. They’re all smart, they’re all successful. Most of them are U.Va. graduates. They love the school."

"They’ve contributed immense amounts of time, many of them immense amounts of money. And so they’ve got an incredible love and perspective of the school, and so they know a lot more about all the circumstances than I do," he said.