A rousing show of support at the University of Virginia Monday for a popular president forced out of her job earlier this month.
At a meeting this afternoon, university professors called for the resignations of two members of the school's governing board and demanded President Teresa Sullivan stay.
Sullivan spoke from the steps of the iconic rotunda but revealed little about her fate.
“I want to thank you for what you do and for making this such a great university,” Sullivan said. “At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. University of Virginia must remain a great university.”
She refused reporter questions and left through a gauntlet of cheering -- and some tearful -- supporters.
The UVA community was stunned on June 10 when news of Sullivan’s forced ouster was announced. She had led the highly ranked school for just two years. The panel never formally voted on Sullivan's departure or fully explained it, touching off a furor among faculty, administrators, students, donors and alumni.
“We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this university,” Rector Helen Dragas said in a statement issued by the university.
“For that reason, let me state clearly and unequivocally: You, our U.Va. family, deserved better from this board, and we have heard your concerns loud and clear.”
In public comments before today’s closed meeting, Dragas, who led the behind-the-scenes campaign to remove Sullivan, defended her decision, saying the university needed to lead, not follow. She also suggested that a lack of outside fund-raising was a chief reason for Sullivan's removal.
“We believe that it should be solicited according to the university’s articulated priorities, in particular on raising resources to reverse the slide in faculty compensation to combat the increasingly intensive raid on our talented faculty,” Dragas said.
In remarks to the board, Sullivan defended her performance since taking office in August 2010 and outlined key aspects of her strategy of measured change, including implementing a new budgeting model that decentralizes financial planning. She said that she has worked to adopt necessary changes in light of financial challenges to public higher education. She said she and the board apparently disagreed with “how that change should occur and at what pace.”
Sullivan issued a written statement this afternoon defending her leadership approach, saying, "Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work.”
Earlier in the day, the faculty senate’s executive council voted to urge the board to reinstate Sullivan. They also asked for Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington to resign and for the faculty to be given a vote on the board.
At the rally, about 2,000 participants from students to former longtime President John Casteen worried about the fallout from the controversy.
“It’s pretty serious,” Casteen said. “It has to do with the demonstration of institutional integrity.”
A little girl wearing a UVA cap held a sign that read, “We don't treat people this way.” Several people carried signs bearing the likeness of university founder Thomas Jefferson and quoting his 1820 pledge that the school would “follow truth wherever it may lead.”
Another commentary on the board's action was discovered early this morning: The letters “GREEED” were spray-painted on the columns of the Rotunda.
The furor over Sullivan's ouster could hit the university in the pocketbook. Several donors are withdrawing their pledges over the issue, including longtime benefactor Hunter Smith, who along with her late husband, Carl W. Smith, has given millions to the school. Smith said she will withhold further support until Dragas, Kington and other board members are removed.
“I love this school and they deserve better than what's been done,'' Smith said Monday in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. “I'm not going to condone what's been done.”
Another prominent U.Va. benefactor took the opposite stance, however. In an op-ed article Sunday in the local newspaper, The Daily Progress, Paul Tudor Jones II said Sullivan's departure is “a clarion call from the Board of Visitors that business as usual is not acceptable anymore.”
“Why be good when there is outstanding to be had?” Jones wrote.