The Ousting of Sullivan: How We Got Here

You’d really have to put a lot of work into something to fuck it up as badly as the UVA Board of Visitors has with their removal of Teresa Sullivan from the presidency.

Based on all of the latest evidence to come out, here’s what happened. Rector Helen Dragas spent months persuading a majority of the 16-member board to support ousting Sullivan. To circumvent Virginia’s open meetings law, Dragas and vice rector Mark Kington talked with them one by one, apparently only meeting with those members who she thought were most amenable to supporting her plan. (Macdonald Caputo, Heywood Fralin, and Vincent Mastracco—and perhaps others—were not contacted until the last minute.)

Somewhere along the line the growing group brought in the chair of the Darden School Foundation, Peter Kiernan. In an e-mail to fellow Darden trustees on Sunday, Kiernan made the mistake of telling the truth, describing how he’d worked with “two important Virginia alums” on the “project” to oust Sullivan.

Governor McDonnell’s spokesman says that the governor was notified only days beforehand that Sullivan was to be forced out, apparently once Dragas had obtained enough support from the board to get a majority supporting the coup.

On Friday, Sullivan was apparently informed that she could quit or be fired.

On Sunday morning the Board of Visitors announced that they’d hold an emergency executive session that afternoon, giving just a few hours’ notice. That “emergency” bit is important. Under § 2.2-3701 of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, an “emergency” is “an unforeseen circumstance rendering the notice required by this chapter impossible or impracticable and which circumstance requires immediate action.” That’s what allowed them to meet without providing the three-day notice that’s legally required. The fact that this was planned for months makes clear that no such emergency could have existed. The meeting was illegal.

The meeting involved just three members of the executive committee: Dragas, Kington, and Charlottesville developer Hunter Craig. Holding that meeting with little notice, on a Sunday, was advantageous to Dragas, since that prevented the attendance of executive committee members who opposed the coup against Sullivan. Macdonald Caputo was unable to travel, due to an injury. George Martin was out of the country, in South Africa. The vote was 3–0 to accept Sullivan’s “resignation.”

The story went public, and people immediately began to wonder why Sullivan had quit. Was she forced out? Was the board’s lack of explanation perhaps to spare her some humiliation?

Then that e-mail from Darden’s Kiernan got out. Today Kiernan resigned from the board, writing in a letter that his e-mail had been “confusing” (on the contrary, it was enlightening) and strained credulity with his claim that his work to toss the president was completely unrelated to the fact that he’s chairing Darden’s foundation. Kiernan’s e-mail was important, because it was the first piece of evidence that there was a long-term conspiracy, at the highest levels of the university—and perhaps the state—to force out the brand-new president.

Sullivan has been out of town all week. Officially, she’s president until August 15, but in a functional sense, it’s not at all clear that she’s still the president now. Her top two deputies have been standing in for her. If she is running the show, then whatever meetings she already had scheduled elsewhere, I’ve got to imagine that she’d cancel them to deal with the unfolding crisis at UVA.

There’s one more wrinkle. Dragas said, in an interview, that “this decision [to force out Sullivan] should be judged after a new president is installed.” She’s saying that, when we compare Sullivan to the next president, then we’ll see that the next president is better. A reasonable inference is that Dragas already knows who the next president will be—that this isn’t a coup to eliminate Sullivan but, instead, to replace her with somebody specific. If that proves to be true, it seems vanishingly unlikely that the faculty will soon accept the legitimacy of that president, which will make his term awfully unpleasant.

The Board of Visitors has called another emergency meeting, this time giving a few days’ notice, and they’ll be meeting on Monday to figure out what to do. They’re faced with near-unanimous opposition from university faculty, furious alumni, and terrible press coverage locally and nationally.

I have to wonder what they thought would happen. To fire Sullivan without explanation was bound to have precisely this result. Making a murder look like a suicide is an old tactic, but they didn’t put any effort into cleaning up the crime scene.

The trouble that the BOV has now is that they are functionally impotent to deal with this backlash. They have a staff of three: a secretary, a clerk, and an administrative assistant. They do not deign to interact with faculty. They almost all have jobs and busy lives outside of their positions on the BOV, and live scattered throughout the state, so it’s not like they can sit in an office together, put together a support staff, and strategize about how to deal with this. At best they might hope to get help from the staff at Madison Hall, but—just a hunch—they’re not liable to get top-flight work out of the folks in the president’s office right now. Andrew Jackson is said to have declared, in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Worcester v. Georgia, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” In a practical sense, the Board of Visitors has very little power over the operations of the university. They can remove the president, but the people who make up the university can do a lot more damage.

How much damage? Rumor has it that members of the teaching faculty are talking about a boycott come fall semester, in two months’ time. It remains to be seen whether that will come to fruition, or what their specific demand is going to be. (An explanation? Re-hire Sullivan? Fire Dragas? Replace the whole Board of Visitors?) But if the Board of Visitors wants to play hardball, they may find that faculty are prepared to play, too.

Despite everything that we know now, we still have no insight into the heart of the matter: why Sullivan was forced out. But we’ll know before long. There are too many people involved at this point, and there’s too much at stake.

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