CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Virginia's governor threatened Friday to replace the entire University of Virginia governing board if it fails to resolve the furor over the school president's ouster when it meets Tuesday.
In a sternly worded three-page letter, Gov. Bob McDonnell told the 15 board members that he will not demand that they reinstate popular President Teresa Sullivan as many of her supporters have suggested. What he is demanding, he said, is a final decision "based solely on what is in the best interests of the University" and an end to the controversy that has gripped the Charlottesville campus for the past two weeks.
"I want final action by the Board on Tuesday," the Republican wrote. "If you fail to do so, I will ask for the resignation of the entire Board on Wednesday."
University board members are appointed by the governor, who also has authority under state law to remove them from the prized but unpaid positions for malfeasance, misfeasance, incompetence or gross neglect of duty. The board's vice rector already has resigned amid the turmoil, and critics of the board's action have demanded the resignation of Rector Helen Dragas.
Students, faculty, university deans and alumni have rallied in support of Sullivan's reinstatement and have criticized the board's executive committee for a lack of transparency in reaching a decision that shocked the campus. The board announced Thursday that it will convene Tuesday to reconsider the status of Sullivan, who had agreed to step down Aug. 15.
McDonnell directed the board to follow four "principles and protocols" when it meets Tuesday.
"First, eliminate any uncertainty on the future of President Sullivan immediately," he wrote. "The university community needs closure now to move forward."
He also said the board must clearly explain its decision, act without regard to any outside pressure and "act as a unified board when your deliberations are done."
Dragas said in a written statement that she agreed that the board must resolve the issue Tuesday and must explain its decision "while being mindful of the constraints of the confidentiality of personnel matters." She said she also appreciated McDonnell's call for a decision free of outside pressure.
"I look forward to a respectful and dignified meeting on Tuesday, and to an important discussion of the implications of any decision we make on the ability of future Boards to lead the University," she said.
In a separate written statement, McDonnell criticized the board's handling of the situation and the tenor of much of the campus debate.
"The lack of an open and clear process of asking for the resignation of the first female president of UVA, as well as the vitriolic comments directed at the first female rector of UVA, are equally deplorable," he wrote.
McDonnell's intervention came hours after Carl Ziethaml, the university dean appointed as Sullivan's interim replacement, said he won't do anything related to the job until after the board meeting.
In a university-wide email, Carl Zeithaml said there is an enormous groundswell of support for Sullivan's reinstatement, and trust can't be restored in the university community until her status is resolved.
"As a result, I am suspending any further negotiations with the Board regarding my status as interim president, as well as any activities associated with this role," Zeithaml wrote.
Zeithaml later told reporters that if Sullivan is reinstated, "I will be extraordinarily happy to work with her." If she does not get her job back, Zeithaml said, he stands ready "to help, in whatever way I can, the University of Virginia move forward."
For now, Zeithaml said, he will focus his attention on being dean of the McIntire School of Commerce.
George Cohen, chairman of the Faculty Senate, praised Zeithaml's decision to step back until after Tuesday's meeting.
"It's the courageous thing to do," Cohen said in a telephone interview. "He's a very well respected member of the university community. He did not cause this problem, and he has a great love for the university."
Ten of the university's 11 deans backed Sullivan's reinstatement in a letter Thursday to the Board of Visitors. They did not ask Zeithaml to sign the letter, saying "it would put him in an extraordinarily difficult position even to be asked," but Cohen said the interim president's action Friday makes his position clear.
"I view it as consistent with the position the deans have taken," he said.
Dragas, who has acknowledged that the situation was handled badly, also issued a statement Thursday elaborating on why she thought Sullivan needed to go. She cited a lack of progress on funding issues, online education and other pressing needs.
Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta and vice chairman of the House Education Committee, sent a letter to Dragas on Thursday saying legislators were "blindsided" by Sullivan's ouster and that he is considering proposing legislation to require training "specifically related to transparency" for all university board members. He said his office has received hundreds of emails from constituents furious over the sacking of Sullivan, and not one in support of the board's action.
Meanwhile, the university's accrediting agency said it will investigate whether the board's actions put the university out of compliance with the agency's standards. Belle Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, said Friday that she will write a letter to Sullivan seeking information on compliance issues next week regardless of what the board does. Of particular note, Wheelan said, are standards prohibiting a minority of board members from making decisions and requiring faculty involvement in governance.