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The University of Virginia’s governing board reinstated its popular president Tuesday only weeks after ousting her in a secretive move that infuriated students and faculty, had the governor threatening to fire the entire board and sparked debate about how to best run public universities in a tight budget climate.
The 15-member Board of Visitors voted unanimously to give Teresa Sullivan her job back during a brief meeting at the university’s historic Rotunda. Afterward, Sullivan thanked the board for its renewed confidence in her leadership of the prestigious public university founded by Thomas Jefferson.
Sullivan’s ouster and reinstatement highlighted a dispute over how one of the finest universities in the U.S.—public or private—should move forward like others nationwide in addressing myriad challenges ranging from coping with shrinking government funding to elevating an academic presence online.
Sullivan had signaled to the board days after her ouster that she advocated “incremental” change—not the bold, swift steps advocated by others such as Rector Helen Dragas, the driving force behind efforts to replace her. But Sullivan pledged Tuesday to work with the board “in bringing about what’s best for the university.”
The newly reinstated president greeted hundreds of faculty, students and other supporters after the board vote as they regaled her with applause and the university’s anthem, “The Good Ole’ Song.”
“You have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am not alone,” said Sullivan, who became U.Va.’s eighth president and its first female leader when she took office in August 2010. “I believe that together we’ll do great things for the university.”
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit group that presses for higher-education accountability and had backed Sullivan’s ouster, said it plans to scrutinize Sullivan’s job performance and expects the board would follow suit.
“More of the same is simply not good enough,” council president Anne Neal said in a statement. “Going forward, President Teresa Sullivan must ask the tough questions and make the tough decisions” that come with her job.
Neal said the board now must set clear performance measures and hold Sullivan accountable for cutting administrative bloat, eliminating outdated programs, limiting tuition growth to the rate of inflation and ensuring students have a solid curriculum that equips them with the skills to succeed once they graduate.
Critics had compared how the board’s executive committee handled Sullivan’s abrupt firing—with no formal vote, it was announced June 10 that she would step down Aug. 15—to a coup d’etat, and said it violated Jefferson’s stated principles of honesty, respect and honor. The university is fiercely proud of its intellectual traditions and likes to call itself “Mr. Jefferson’s university.”
The ouster triggered days of online protests, large protests on the campus’s historic grounds, and calls by deans, faculty, students and alumni for Sullivan’s return.
Dragas has said the university faces several issues ahead: challenges from reduced federal and state funding, a rapidly shifting health care environment that she said will necessitate changes at the U.Va. Medical Center; heightened pressure to better allocate scarce resources; changing technology and more.
U.Va. expects to get about 10 percent of its operating budget from the state of Virginia this fiscal year. Public funding per in-state student has fallen to an estimated $8,310 in 2012-13, down from $15,274 per in-state student in 2000-01, according to the university.
On Tuesday, Sullivan called on the university community to help address the challenges to higher education and pledged to work with the board, administration and faculty to come up with strategic plans “to ensure the university’s future.” She also asked donors to “please stay with us” and continue to invest in U.Va. and create a legacy for the future.
Kelly Geary Davis, a 1997 graduate and entrepreneur who lives in Austin, Texas, said that it was evident Sullivan had been addressing the challenges the university faces even before her ouster.
Sullivan, 62, is an eminent scholar of labor-force demography who came to Charlottesville highly regarded. Previously, she served as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan, another top public university.
Davis said she attended her 15th reunion in Charlottesville the first weekend in June when Sullivan spoke. Sullivan discussed with alumni “all the things that were brought up” by Dragas in her statement, including U.Va.’s health care facilities, financial pressures and the need for fundraising, and AccessUVA, the need-based financial-aid program.
“She spent a lot of time discussing online education, issues and programs, and looking at what other universities were doing,” Davis said.
Faculty Senate Chairman and U.Va. law professor George Cohen called Sullivan’s reinstatement “a tremendous day for the University of Virginia” and pledged to work with Sullivan in making sure U.Va. moves forward in the challenging environment presented today.
After her ouster, Sullivan defended her performance at a board meeting June 18, outlining some of her initiatives since taking office, including hiring a new provost and chief operating officer and adopting a new budget model that decentralizes financial planning. She also acknowledged being an “incrementalist,” favoring measured planning and collaboration with faculty and other constituents over what she called the board’s “corporate, top-down leadership.” She said the latter wasn’t in the university’s best interests.
Dragas opened Tuesday’s meeting by declaring the university would emerge stronger from the controversy. She again apologized for the way the matter was initially handled.
“I believe real progress is more possible than ever now,” Dragas told the group shortly before the roll call vote was taken. “It is unfortunate that we had to have a near-death experience to get here.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell, who appointed half of the board members, had warned Friday that he would seek the resignations of all the members if the board failed to resolve the controversy Tuesday.
Dragas and one other board member are up for reappointment, and two others have terms that are expiring shortly. The governor must announce his decisions on all four slots by July 1.
After the vote, McDonnell, whose twin sons will be U.Va. sophomores in the fall, said he looked forward to the president and the board working together in a spirit of cooperation.
“The past few weeks have not been easy for the University, and all those who love it. There has been too little transparency; too much vitriol. Too little discussion; too much blame,” McDonnell said. “Now, with today’s Board action, the time has come for Mr. Jefferson’s University to move forward. The statements made today by Board members and President Sullivan were poignant and gracious and set the right tone for collaboration ahead.”
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