Last week, it was announced that Teresa Sullivan, the eighth president in the 193-year history of the University of Virginia and the first female president of the institution, will step down on August 15. I was with a group of friends—some of whom are Wahoos like myself—when I received the news via an email by Helen Dragas, the Rector of UVa’s governing Board of Visitors. To say we were shocked by the news would be an understatement. After all, President Sullivan has served less than two years and is widely popular among University faculty and students. Yet almost more shocking than the news itself was the manner in which the news was broken. Dragas’s email was riddled with underhanded insults to our president and the only reason given for Sullivan’s departure was “a philosophical difference of opinion” between herself and the Board.
In the days following Dragas’s June 10 announcement, the situation went from bad to worse. Every step of the way, the Board has mishandled this “scandal” and as new details emerge daily about the Board’s sketchy behind-the-scenes operations, many have become increasingly angry, suspicious, and disillusioned with the Board. If the actions of UVa’s Board of Visitors were in fact legal, they should not be. Dragas and her board exploited loopholes in the law, blatantly disregarded best standard practices for boards, and acted without any sense of decency for the University and its leader. The Board operated with zero transparency and kept everyone in the dark as its members discussed Sullivan’s potential removal in private conversations over a series of months. UVa is a public institution that prides itself on its strong tradition of honor and honesty, openness and respect, and it appears to me that the Board’s handling of Sullivan’s resignation is the real scandal in this messy affair.
Despite what may come out in the days and months to come about what Teresa Sullivan did and did not do during her short term as president, I think that the Board’s actions will go down in history as a classic case of failed leadership. In their egregious handling of Sullivan’s dismissal, the Board has managed to threaten the way UVa is perceived by prospective as well as current faculty, students, and donors and has damaged the reputation of the very institution it claimed it was trying to protect. At a time when bold leadership is needed now more than ever, it is not President Sullivan but the Board that has failed the University.
While this debacle has been deeply embarrassing, unsettling, and has shaken the UVa community’s strong foundation of trust, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. As Dean Woo said in her recent email to the UVa community, “[Transitions] can be catalysts for reflection, renewal and reinvigoration”. In this case, the UVa Board of Visitors, its members, and its process need to be reviewed in its entirety and every effort should be made to ensure that something like this never happens again. Until then, I will continue to question the Board’s leadership and will have little choice but to assume that the Board is dysfunctional at best.
Though it remains to be seen whether or not there was a good reason to replace President Sullivan, one thing is certain—the Board’s handling of Sullivan’s ousting demonstrated failed leadership at every level.
Posted by Sarah Clark, an Intern with Lead Your Way Solutions
A rising fourth-year at the University of Virginia, Sarah is an American Studies major and a Leadership minor. She is the founder and president of the International Justice Mission chapter at UVa and during her fourth year she will be interning at the UVa Women’s Center and writing a thesis. She is a Delaware native and loves traveling, reading, and the beach.