RICHMOND, Va. — The University of Virginia's governing board will consider reinstating President Teresa Sullivan at a meeting next week, even as the leader of the embattled board defended the unpopular ouster that threw the flagship university into turmoil.
The board has announced plans to vote Tuesday on whether to retain Sullivan, the first female president of the prestigious public university founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson and renowned today as much for its white-colonnaded pavilions as for turning out top scholars and leaders in all walks.
Ten of the university's 11 school deans, as well as the Faculty Senate, have demanded Sullivan's reinstatement amid wide condemnations of the board's abrupt firing of the popular Sullivan.
Sullivan, a 62-year-old eminent scholar of labor-force demography whose appointment drew national attention in 2010, was forced out during a closed-door session of the Board of Visitors in which no official vote was taken. The June 10 announcement that she would resign blindsided Sullivan and ignited wide outrage and protests.
Those opposed to Sullivan's removal likened the ouster to a coup d'etat that went against the stately Charlottesville university's longstanding principles of honor, respect and transparency. In calling for the board to explain its actions some repeated Jefferson's 1820 pledge that the school should "follow truth wherever it may lead."
For her part, Rector Helen Dragas publicly disclosed Thursday more detailed reasoning behind Sullivan's ouster. A six-page statement 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.
"No matter how you feel about our actions, these challenges represent some very high hurdles that stand in the way of our university's path to continued success in the coming decade, and they are going to remain front and center for the next board and the next president over the coming years," the statement said.
In comments to the panel earlier this week, Sullivan defended her performance since taking office in August 2010, outlining aspects of her strategy of measured change, including implementing a new budgeting model that decentralizes financial planning.
Sullivan admitted to being an incrementalist, according to remarks released after her appearance at Monday's closed session: "Sweeping action may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership, but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear."
"Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university," she said.
But Dragas said U.Va. needs "the rapid development of a plan that includes goals, costs, sources of funds, timelines and individual accountability."
She did acknowledge that the board mishandled Sullivan's removal, and apologized. "In my view we did the right thing, the wrong way," Dragas said.
A majority of the 15-member board would have to approve the reinstatement for Sullivan to remain in office. Messages left for the 14 other board members, as well as for the law firm representing Sullivan, weren't returned Thursday.
On Thursday the 10 deans asked the board to retain the popular Sullivan, who took office in August 2010 after serving as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan, another top public university.
A gathering outside the historic Rotunda on Monday drew a sea of 2,000 Sullivan supporters who decried her ouster and loudly cheered and serenaded her with U.Va.'s anthem, "The Good Ole Song." She waded into the crowd, all smiles, as admirers snapped photos of her.
The deans said in a letter Thursday to the board that they think the board acted out of the school's best interests but that removing Sullivan and installing an interim president would delay action on the university's pressing fiscal concerns and other needed change.
"We recommend strongly that discussions begin immediately to reset the relationship with President Sullivan, reconstitute the team she had put together over the past year, and accelerate the important decisions to be made," the letter said.
The deans didn't ask McIntire School of Commerce Dean Carl P. Zeithaml to sign their letter because they didn't want to put him in a difficult position. After a marathon session, the board on Tuesday named Zeithaml the interim president to take over after Sullivan's departure.
A glimpse of the roles that Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington played in the ouster of Sullivan was detailed in emails between the two top board members in the weeks leading to the June 10 announcement. They exchanged links to articles about online learning, hospital mergers and other issues that surfaced in the reasoning behind Sullivan's removal.
Kington resigned Tuesday, stating it was "the right thing to do and I hope that it will begin a needed healing process at the university."
And Thursday, Sullivan urged that those angered by her ouster cab engage in vigorous debate yet remain civil.
"I know that emotions are running high ... but there is no excuse for abusing anyone with whom you disagree," Sullivan said in a statement.
She also said that the spray-painting of "G-R-E-E-E-D" on six columns of U.Va.'s stately Rotunda early Monday "goes beyond free speech into vandalism."
Zinie Chen Sampson can be reached on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/zinie