A group of University of Virginia alumni are calling on the school's board to candidly explain its attempted ouster of President Teresa Sullivan, saying a failure to do so will hurt the university's reputation and its fundraising efforts.
In an open letter to the board sent Wednesday, 14 alumni spanning three decades equated the board's June 10 forced ouster to a “boardroom coup” more in line with a corporation than an academic institution. Sullivan's resignation was announced June 10, followed by protests and uproar on the Charlottesville campus until she was reinstated June 26.
The eight-page letter calls for an “open and dispassionate analysis” of the university's governance. It was sent before the board's retreat next week.
“No one charges that any Board member failed to have UVA's best interests at heart. The duty of loyalty is not in question,” the letter read. “The offense is misfeasance -- incompetent stewardship -- not malfeasance.”
A university spokeswoman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
The alumni said the crisis created by Sullivan's attempted ouster was not reconciled satisfactorily. They offered a framework for analyzing the crisis, but said hearings demanded by lawmakers may be the only opportunity for legislators and the public to learn what happened and “why no satisfactory explanation has yet been given” for the board's actions.
Board Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington were credited with orchestrating the ouster. Kington resigned days later as thousands protested on campus demanding to know the board forced the resignation of Sullivan. She was the first woman to head the university founded by Thomas Jefferson and had only been in the position for two years.
Dragas refused to give reasons for the ouster for days, finally releasing a letter as the board announced it would reconsider Sullivan's status. In a six-page statement, Dragas said Sullivan wasn't acting quickly enough to address financial pressures facing higher education, the role of online learning, changes in the health care environment, the increased student-faculty ratio, fundraising and other strategic challenges. The university lacks long-range plans on several of those fronts, it added.
The letter did little to quell the furor.
The alumni cautioned that the situation was not over.
“It will not end until the Board acknowledges publicly that UVA suffered a significant failure of corporate governance; and it will not end until Board members finally explain candidly, to satisfy common sense, what really motivated them to act so precipitously,” it said.
The group wrote of being troubled by Gov. Bob McDonnell's reappointment of Dragas and of negative media. It said the board's “clumsy and self-defeating” public relations efforts “obfuscate the state of governance at UVa to the point of insulting readers' intelligence.”
“They convey window-dressing and cover-up, not reconciliation,” the letter read.
Resolution must happen before the university suffers more harm, they said.
“The alumni's loss of confidence in the Board's capacity for oversight, if allowed to fester, threatens alumni giving and other essential participation in University affairs,” it said. “...For potential donors, the underlying causes cannot go unspoken, un-examined in frank detail, or unresolved without the University's paying a heavy price.
“Understanding the nature, extent, cause, and self-inflicted quality of the Board's damage to the University's brand and business is thus essential.”
While giving to the university had dipped significantly during the uproar, the AP reported last week that donations doubled after Sullivan was reinstated. The university ended that month with its best June since 2008, bringing in $44.4 million in cash and pledges. Those include at least two benefactors who removed the university from their wills after Sullivan's resignation and then called to say the school had been added back following Sullivan's reinstatement.
The alumni who signed the letter are: Richard P. Bartley, Walter G. Birkel, Richard C. Bradley III, Margaret Ann Brown, Jack M. Coe, Mary Bland Love, Richard D. Marks, Gay Outlaw, James B. Rouse, Barbara D. Savage, William Scanlan Jr., Andrew Stuart, Edward C. Swindler and Stephen A. Taylor.