The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Local U.Va. grads support ousted leader
WATCH IT LIVE: Today’s Board of Visitors meeting starts at 3 p.m. You can watch it live here.
BY CHELYEN DAVIS
Fredericksburg-area alumni of the University of Virginia say they were startled when the university’s board of visitors asked President Teresa Sullivan to resign, and hope to see her reinstated when the board meets Tuesday.
“I think it was handled as poorly as any situation could be handled,” said Charles W. McDaniel, president of Hilldrup Cos. in Stafford County. “I think [Rector Helen Dragas] got persuaded by some very influential alumni to push this situation without proper [discussions] or time. It reeks of political maneuvering and power players.”
McDaniel and his wife, Tricia, both U.Va. alumni, co-chaired the U.Va. Parents Committee last year and interacted with Sullivan on several occasions.
“Our impression was that she was involved in all aspects of the university and was moving forward in a very positive direction,” Tricia McDaniel said in an email. “Until receiving the email from Helen Dragas, we had not heard one negative comment regarding her performance.”
Charles McDaniel said he supports the way Virginia colleges are run, and the governor’s prerogative to appoint board members, even though that can lead to politicization.
But, he said, the structure needs enough tweaks to ensure more transparency and accountability.
“A decision like this cannot be made like it was made, with a very small committee,” McDaniel said, adding that he’d like to see a faculty member added to the board of visitors.
Former University of Mary Washington Rector Nanalou Sauder said U.Va.’s board of visitors should have been more considerate of the school’s various constituencies.
“You have to be careful what you do say, but it’s always better for the public who support the institution to know what’s going on—not be blindsided,” she said.
During Sauder’s tenure on Mary Washington’s board of visitors, a president was fired and a another abruptly resigned after just two years in the position. But she said former UMW President Judy Hample’s resignation was different from the U.Va. controversy.
“We were not dismissing a president,” she said of Hample’s decision to quit. “The president decided to go, and that made it a whole lot different from what the University of Virginia is doing.”
Hample, however, did run into controversies during her short tenure. Some complained that she wasn’t visible on campus, and she was criticized for not shaking students’ hands during graduation because of concerns over swine flu.
She also ran into trouble during a safety walk with students and other administrators after placing a emergency test call to campus police. She never told police it was a test, and they responded as if it were a real emergency.
House of Delegates Speaker Bill Howell, R–Stafford—who graduated from UVa. Law in 1967—said he, too, thinks Sullivan should be reinstated.
“I don’t think it was handled properly,” Howell said. “I do think it would calm things down, and she has three years left on her contract, and see how it goes.”
Howell said he doesn’t think the legislature needs to step in at this point—particularly because today’s meeting could go a long way toward resolving things—but he does think university boards, and other state boards, need to clarify that they can’t make big decisions like firing a university president without full meetings.
“It seems to me that basically two people convened an executive committee” to make the decision, Howell said.
“That’s wrong, and that ought to be in their operating procedures and their bylaws. I don’t think it takes the General Assembly to tell them they need to do this.”
Howell said he does have concerns about rising costs at state colleges and universities, and that such costs can’t keep rising the way they have in recent years. Schools, he said, must run more efficiently, and governing boards must ensure that they do so.
McDaniel made similar points, and said he feels online education—reportedly a part of Dragas’ concerns about Sullivan’s leadership—is “a big, big deal.”
But Sullivan deserves more time to step up to the plate, he said.
Local alumna Betsy Valentine said she, too, thinks Sullivan should be reinstated, and feels Dragas’ stated reasons for asking for Sullivan’s resignation were “superficial.”
Valentine referred to op-eds and newspaper articles referenced in emails among Dragas and others before Sullivan was asked to resign.
“The more we find out about how they made their decision, the worse it is,” Valentine said. “The whole thing was so superficial you don’t base decisions of that magnitude on articles like that.”
Valentine, who has helped found a U.Va. alumni club in Fredericksburg, said the whole situation feels “surreal.
“This is probably the most disruptive thing that’s happened to the university since the Rotunda fire. That’s just not how you handle things,” Valentine said. It’s almost like this can’t be happening at the University of Virginia there’s too much honor and trust and integrity for the board to conduct their business this way.”
Other alumni also spoke of transparency, or the lack thereof, being a big concern.
U.Va. alumna Casey Paul, 25, said she emailed the board of visitors Monday asking them to reinstate the ousted president because “simply put, it’s the right thing to do.”
“I just think that transparency is important, and the fact that they failed to use that in their decision-making process is hurtful,” said Paul, who is from Stafford and graduated from UVa. in 2009.
Alumnus Matthew Resnick, 25, of Spotsylvania County said he thinks the board of visitors will reinstate Sullivan today. He said he hopes the rector apologizes, too.
“It seemed like the decision was made in a very un-U.Va.-like manner,” he said.
Chip Massey, who graduate from U.Va. in 1970 and from its medical school in 1974, said he hopes a larger lesson can be learned from the situation.
It’s an opportunity, he said, “to examine governance of universities and what excellence means. It could be a very positive thing for the university.”
Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028
Staff writer Jeff Branscome contributed to this report.