RTD looks back at attempted ouster of UVA president. Meanwhile, website of local weekly that won state's top journalism award covering it vanishes.
The RTD took a look back at the attempted ouster of UVA President Teresa Sullivan 10 years ago, which, until Nazis held a tiki torch march on the Lawn, was perhaps UVA's worst publicity nightmare. There's a lot left out, as it’s a summary in search of a simple conclusion. In fact, my colleagues and I at The Hook received the state’s top journalism award for our coverage of the attempted ouster just months before our publishers chose to shut the weekly down. Unfortunately, it appears those same publishers, who currently publish C-Ville Weekly, have allowed The Hook’s website to be removed. Asked why the website, which has been available as a searchable archive since 2013, was shut down over a month ago, C-Ville Weekly declined to comment.
According to Waldo Jaquith on @cvillenewscom, "The Internet Archive’s last capture of The Hook’s website on the Wayback Machine was on June 8. The domain name changed hands on January 22, and its owner is anonymous."
Here’s hoping that invaluable archive of local journalism hasn’t been lost.
Fortunately, some of The Hook’s stories, including our coverage of the attempted ouster, can be found on the Wayback Machine, which the following summary has relied on.
"In the days that followed [the ouster], the university community came to Sullivan’s defense as thousands signed a petition to reinstate her, and school deans, the faculty senate and the provost took her side, claiming the board didn’t understand how higher education should function." - RTD
Actually, most of UVA's leadership, including the Governor, were on board with the decision to fire Sullivan. After UVA's Deans met with UVA Rector Helen Dragas and Vice-Rector Mark Kington, who fired Sullivan, they basically sent out similar letters to faculty "urging calm in this time of transition" and assured them that "the University is greater than any one person."
"The "philosophical difference of opinion" to which the Rector's announcement refers has to do with the rate of change and progress in the face of long range challenges to the University–the Rector called these "existential threats" or challenges to the existence of the University. Included among these threats are recruitment, compensation for faculty and staff, new technology, and financing. The Rector explained that the Board of Visitors seeks "bold, not incremental change." Evidently, conversations about the rate of change have been ongoing at least since last fall. The Rector said that this action is a call for the development of a compelling vision for the University, followed by the raising and allocation of resources toward that vision." - Darden Dean Robert Bruner in an email to faculty, which was almost identical to what other deans sent out.
Some deans and other UVA leaders openly embraced the decision to fire Sullivan:
Curry School Dean Robert Pianta: "The discussion from the Board this morning made several references to unleashing the schools to be bold and aspirational, to accelerate change. My clear sense is that…we are moving in ways that align well with the larger direction and vision of the Board."
Provost John Simon and COO Michael Strine: "The Board of Visitors' action is resolute and authoritative. We encourage all of us, even as we adjust and absorb this change, to focus constructively forward in preparing the institution for its next stage of leadership."
Arts & Sciences Dean Meredith Woo: "I trust in the wisdom of the Board of Visitors which is unequivocally resolved to swift and bold action to ensure that the University remains in the top echelon of universities well into the 21st century and beyond."
Darden Dean Robert Bruner: "Don't spend your energy on rumors and speculation– let's give the Board of Visitors the space to make wise decisions and implement a good transition."
Paul Tudor Jones, UVA alum and donor: "The spirit of Thomas Jefferson, the first rector of the University of Virginia, is cheering this bold action by the Board of Visitors. Jefferson was a change agent, a man of action and a perfectionist. To paraphrase him, it is time for a revolution." (from a truly bizarre oped in the Daily Progress.)
Only after the backlash from faculty, students, and the public did UVA leadership start to change their tune. Indeed, BOV members who voted to fire Sullivan later voted to reinstate her. Also, while the RTD characterizes the crisis as a conflict between Sullivan's incremental, consensus-building approach to leadership and the Board's call for swift action to address the "existential threats" that online education, declining enrollment, and other possible shocks to higher education presented....there was really no evidence, at the time, that such a "crisis of conflict" even existed.
Indeed, an extensive report by the American Association of University Professors found "no evidence nor any hint of a “power struggle.”
“No one has denied the authority of the board of visitors to maintain institutional oversight, even to the point of removing a president," the report concluded. "The question is one of the responsible exercise of that authority."
It's important to emphasize how completely nuts and out of the blue this was. That's why it became such a big news story. There was no evidence of some slowly brewing conflict at the university that year, although those responsible for the decision to fire Sullivan said there had been. It appeared to be a manufactured crisis being used to conduct a coup.
"The problem here," said then UVA Faculty Senate chair George Cohen, "is I haven't seen any evidence that President Sullivan wasn't capable of addressing the University's challenges or problems."
UVA's famous politics prof. Larry Sabato called the process leading up to the decision "absolutely outrageous."
"There wasn't a scintilla of transparency in it," he told Richmond Station NBC12. "This has given us the worst two weeks of publicity since I've been associated with the University, and that was 42 years ago. I'm sick at heart."
Sabato likened the ouster to a military "command and control" operation.
"Terry Sullivan is doing EXACTLY what the Board of Visitors hired her to do, and doing it well," former UVA Board of Visitors member Austin Ligon, a founder of CarMax, wrote on his Facebook page several days after the ouster. "Unfortunately, the new leadership, neither of whom have ever run a large organization, have confused activity with accomplishment."
For many, the question remains: What on earth were Dragas and company thinking? According to one source, Dragas assured UVA Provost John Simon that the fall-out from the firing would blow over in a "couple of days." What might have lead to such short-sighted, foolish thinking?