Poll: U.Va. Leadership Flap Was a PR Debacle

47 percent of those surveyed supported President Teresa Sullivan's reinstatement

View Comments (
)
|
Email
|
Print

    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Courtesy of the University of Virginia

    The firing and subsequent rehiring two weeks later of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan was a public relations debacle for the head of the school's governing board who orchestrated the failed ouster, according to a new statewide poll released Wednesday.

    The Quinnipiac University Poll shows that 47 percent of those surveyed supported Sullivan's reinstatement by a University of Virginia Board of Visitors chastened from two weeks of angry protests, withering national media coverage and an ultimatum from Virginia's governor. Only 7 percent disapproved of her reinstatement.

    Forty-five percent were undecided or knew too little about the issue, revealing that a wide swath of Virginia's electorate paid little or no attention to the leadership upheaval at the state's venerated flagship university founded by Thomas Jefferson.

    Quinnipiac conducted live telephone interviews with 1,673 registered Virginia voters from July 10-16. The results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.

    The poll also found that by almost a 2-to-1 ratio, those surveyed support a harsh anti-immigration law similar to Arizona's, which requires police to check the legal status of those already stopped or arrested if officers believe they're in the United States illegally.

    By almost the same proportion _ 62 percent to 34 percent with 4 percent undecided _ respondents said they would welcome a similar law in Virginia.

    On a partisan breakdown, 91 percent of those who identified themselves as Republicans said they want an Arizona-style immigration crackdown in Virginia while only 35 percent who said they were Democrats liked the idea. Except for black respondents, support for such a law in Virginia was strong in every age, demographic and income group.

    Quinnipiac found that Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's job-approval rating improved only slightly _ up to 55 percent from 53 percent last month _ and those polled were evenly split on the General Assembly's performance, with 41 percent approving and 41 percent disapproving.

    U.Va.'s Board of Visitors, in a secretive Sunday afternoon meeting, voted on June 10 to dismiss Sullivan effective Aug. 15. Students, faculty, alumni and many of Virginia's elected leaders said the move blindsided them and condemned it. Spontaneous protests erupted on the 193-year-old campus almost daily demanding Sullivan's reinstatement.

    Under growing pressure as the school's prestigious image was battered in worldwide news accounts, the board reconvened and reversed its decision on June 26. Days earlier, McDonnell had told the Board of Visitors and its rector, Helen Dragas, to resolve the issue for good by that date or tender their resignations. McDonnell did not direct the board whether to rehire Sullivan.

    The poll showed that in the aftermath, Sullivan is viewed more favorably than Dragas. Twenty-seven percent viewed Sullivan favorably compared to 3 percent who viewed her unfavorably and 69 percent who said they didn't know enough about the issue or refused to answer. Five percent viewed Dragas favorably, 21 percent viewed her unfavorably and 73 percent who knew too little or would not answer.

    "Among the voters who followed the drama, there was a public relations winner, Dr. Teresa Sullivan, and a loser, Helen Dragas," said Peter A. Brown, the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute's assistant director.

    After the final vote, McDonnell re-appointed Dragas to another term on the board.

    Thirty-seven percent said they liked the way McDonnell handled the U.Va. meltdown, 16 percent disapproved and 47 percent were undecided.

    Overall, however, the soap opera did little to change attitudes about the university itself. Seventy percent said it did not affect their opinion of U.Va., 14 percent said they view the school less favorably because of it, and 6 percent said they view it more favorably. Eleven percent didn't know or would not answer.

    U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner's job approval stood at 57 percent, down from a high of 64 percent in Quinnipiac's February survey. Fellow Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, who is giving up his seat this year after just one term, had a 43 percent job-approval rating to 30 percent who disapprove and 26 percent who didn't know.

    Among next year's Republican gubernatorial candidates, 36 percent approved of the job Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling is doing compared to 19 percent who disapproved and 45 percent who were undecided, and 44 percent approved of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's performance while 31 percent disapproved and 25 percent were undecided.