Nine months after the University of Virginia removed its president, prompting a storm of protest, and then reinstated her, the university still cannot go more than a few days or weeks without some new reminder of that spectacle, or persisting tensions between the president and the trustee who ousted her.
But the dispute long ago stopped being just about Virginia. Conflict over governing the university has become a proxy war in a much larger struggle over control of the nation’s public universities, with educational groups weighing in on opposing sides of the Virginia confrontation, and taking shots at each other.
Around the country, waning state support, rising tuition and the competitive threat of online education have raised fears about the future of public universities. Trustees and politicians in several states have increasingly flexed their muscles to influence university operations, leading to turf battles with presidents and chancellors who are largely used to having their way.
“In any sector that’s in the middle of stress and change, the relationships between C.E.O.’s and their boards gets more complicated, and these are very stressful times to be running a university,” said M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, who has held several high-level posts in business, government and academia, including president of Michigan State University and chairman of Dow Jones & Company.
He said board members who are executives in their own right are tempted, especially in challenging times, to shift from overseeing to hands-on managing.
Last June, President Teresa A. Sullivan agreed to resign from the helm at Virginia, after being told that otherwise, the Board of Visitors would fire her. The news stunned nearly everyone at the university, including Dr. Sullivan. There had been no public sign of discontent with her, and the board’s chief, or rector, Helen E. Dragas, had orchestrated the ouster in private conversations with other members.
The reasons Ms. Dragas, a real estate developer, offered for removing Dr. Sullivan touched on philosophical differences, leadership qualities and a failure to embrace new technology, but they struck many people as vague. A series of mounting protests by faculty members, students and alumni ensued, the board reversed course, and Dr. Sullivan stayed on. Gov. Bob McDonnell had demanded that the board end the crisis, but he ensured some continued awkwardness by reappointing Ms. Dragas.
People who watch them at close quarters say that these days, the relationship between Dr. Sullivan and Ms. Dragas is a bit prickly but mostly cordial, and that generally the president and the board have worked well together toward goals like greater openness, a faculty pay raise and long-range planning. Ms. Dragas and Dr. Sullivan declined to comment.
“There are still some concerns, but it’s not a crisis, and I think things have gotten a lot better,” said George Cohen, chairman of the Faculty Senate, which was highly critical of the board last year. “But from what’s in the media, you could get the impression that it’s still in upheaval.”
In December, the private agency that accredits the university, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, announced that it had placed the school on a one-year warning, saying that the board’s handling of last June’s crisis fell short of acceptable governing standards. It was an embarrassment, one that drew ample news coverage, but probably not a serious setback for the university.
Weeks later, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni—which had lauded the Virginia board during the confrontation and says that in general, trustees should be much more activist—countered by asking the United States Department of Education to investigate the accrediting commission, accusing it of meddling in internal university affairs. The department turned down the request.
Two weeks ago, The Washington Post published an e-mail that Dr. Sullivan sent last month to board members, contending that the detailed goals laid out for her by Ms. Dragas were unrealistic or micromanaging, suggesting a new flare-up. Last week, the trustees’ council made a new appeal to the Department of Education to look into the accrediting commission.
And on Thursday, the American Association of University Professors had harsh words for the Virginia board, in a report on last year’s crisis. The authors “met with person after person, vainly striving for some explanation for the board’s action and the process it had followed,” the report said.
Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, said the problems that the University of Virginia faces, and the questions over who is in charge, are national phenomena. The traditional approach for trustees and governors, which he advocates, is “noses in, hands off,” he said, but that view is under fire.
The University of Texas regents, often seen as an extension of Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed them, have strongly asserted themselves in recent years, leading to repeated clashes with William C. Powers Jr., president of the flagship Austin campus.
In 2011, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin devised a plan to split the flagship Madison campus away from the University of Wisconsin system, and enlisted the help of Carolyn A. Martin, the Madison chancellor. The system’s president and regents were upset about being bypassed, and Dr. Martin left to become president of Amherst College.
Later that year, the Oregon State Board of Higher Education fired the University of Oregon’s president, Richard W. Lariviere, in part for his insistence on charting his own course.
“The tensions are baked into these complicated relationships, but they’ve gotten worse and more politicized,” Mr. Hartle said. “There’s no doubt that some people out there would like to use UVA to make a larger point.”