UVA official who pushed President Teresa Sullivan’s ouster now out himself

Posted June 20, 2012, at 5:35 a.m.
University of Virginia Rector Helen E. Dragas is followed out of the Rotunda by a waiting crowd and media, Tuesday, June 19, 2012, after the Board of Visitors met for hours to decide on an interim president in Charlottesville, Va.
Sabrina Schaeffer | AP
University of Virginia Rector Helen E. Dragas is followed out of the Rotunda by a waiting crowd and media, Tuesday, June 19, 2012, after the Board of Visitors met for hours to decide on an interim president in Charlottesville, Va.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The University of Virginia remained in turmoil Tuesday, with the resignations of a governing board member and a star professor, as an interim president was named to succeed the popular Teresa Sullivan.

The widening controversy over the university leadership claimed Mark Kington, vice rector of U-Va.’s embattled Board of Visitors and an architect of Sullivan’s ouster, who stepped down in a gesture of conciliation. Some faculty members said they would not work with the interim president and criticized him for accepting the post.

Leaders of the 16-member governing board have labored to present a united front in the decision to remove Sullivan, who resigned June 10 in the face of seemingly overwhelming opposition on the panel.

But board members have found few public supporters, and an 11-hour session to name Sullivan’s successor exposed internal rifts. Carl Zeithaml, dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, was named to the interim post early Tuesday on a 12-1 vote, with two members abstaining and one absent.

On Tuesday, Gov. Robert McDonnell, R, said for the first time that the board had made a mistake by not being open with the community, leading to a week of mounting protest on the usually tranquil Grounds.

“There are absolutely things they should have done differently,” McDonnell said on a conference call with reporters as he was traveling in Sweden. “There’s been a lot of heartache and crisis and grief on that campus.”

McDonnell, whose twin sons attend U-Va., said he was closely monitoring the situation in Charlottesville and would weigh recent events as he makes appointments to the board in the coming weeks.

In a marathon session, which began Monday afternoon and stretched past 2 a.m. Tuesday, an uncharacteristically divided board pressed ahead with the transition.

The negotiations pitted Sullivan’s supporters against her opponents. Rector Helen Dragas, who led the campaign to remove her, has repeatedly claimed near-unanimous approval for replacing Sullivan. But within the oval board room in the Rotunda, the rector’s majority appeared to wear thin. At one point, the pro-Sullivan faction had eight votes, or half the board, according to several people briefed on the meeting.

The anti-Sullivan faction won the day, and 12 of 16 members cast votes for Zeithaml in the public portion of an almost completely closed meeting. But when it was over, two board members spoke out in Sullivan’s defense for the first time.

“I have not been presented with evidence that I believe merits asking for her resignation, nor have I ever indicated that I would be willing to support such an effort,” said Heywood Fralin, a medical executive who cast the only vote against Zeithaml. “Given an opportunity I would have also voted to support her reinstatement. It is my opinion that the process leading to her resignation was flawed.”

Board members Robert Hardie and Macdonald Caputo abstained, and Glynn Key was absent.

Board member Hunter Craig, who supported the Zeithaml appointment, said he had nonetheless hoped to undo Sullivan’s resignation and had worked “to reaffirm her status as president of the University of Virginia.”

The board’s vote capped an extraordinary 10 days in which the board leaders, Dragas and Kington, worked behind the scenes to collect the votes to remove Sullivan. The move drew instant outrage from many administrators, faculty, staff and students, culminating in a protest on the Lawn on Monday that drew more than 2,000 people to the depopulated campus.

Kington, an Alexandria businessman whom McDonnell had appointed, resigned two years before his term was to end. He wrote the governor that he hoped to “begin a needed healing process at the university.”

Some prominent faculty members began lobbying one another to reject Zeithaml’s appointment as part of a broader campaign to expel the board leaders and reinstate Sullivan.

In a note to colleagues, politics professor James Ceaser termed Zeithaml a board “puppet” and urged deans to refuse to recognize the new chain of command, to sustain a mood of crisis on the Grounds that might “force the governor and others to find a solution different than the one the board is now pursuing.”

“Why should it be over?” Ceaser said in an interview. “There are maybe 16 people in the state of Virginia who favor the board, and they’re all on it.”

But leaders of the Faculty Senate said they would work with Zeithaml.

“We want to give him a chance to reach out to us, to meet with us,” said George Cohen, a law professor who chairs the faculty group. The senate has called for the board’s leaders to resign, but Cohen said its fight is not “with him personally.”

Zeithaml, one of 11 deans at U-Va., cut short a trip to Europe and flew home after the board’s vote. “I realize that it is a very difficult time for many people within our community, but I look forward to working with our faculty, students, staff, alumni and University leaders to move U-Va. forward,” he said in a statement.

Sullivan had warned the board that other universities would seize the moment to raid star faculty. On Tuesday, one of those stars, computer scientist William Wulf, delivered a choleric letter of resignation to Zeithaml.

“I do not wish to be associated with an institution being as badly run as the current UVa,” he wrote, saying he feared the governing board would “make a lot more dumb decisions.”

Wulf is one of fewer than 20 “university professors” among 2,200 faculty members at U-Va., an honorific denoting significant stature.

Del. Joseph Morrissey, D-Richmond, a U-Va. graduate, is calling on his colleagues in the General Assembly to investigate the circumstances surrounding Sullivan’s forced resignation. “The taxpayers of Virginia, who support the university, deserve answers, not more excuses,” he said.

But most alumni, donors and community leaders, concerned for the health of one of the nation’s most prestigious public institutions, instead clamored for McDonnell to make further changes to the board. As of Tuesday, the governor’s office had received nearly 800 emails and calls on the topic.

McDonnell reiterated that he would not micromanage the university or the board, which he said is comprised of highly successful, deeply committed people who have “great love” for U-Va.

But McDonnell will be forced to play a role. Dragas’s four-year term expires at month’s end. Assuming she wants to return, McDonnell will have to decide whether to reappoint her. Whatever decision he makes will have political consequences. McDonnell said he will reveal his intentions “at the right time.”

In a signed settlement, Sullivan will receive her presidential compensation package, $680,000, for another year of sabbatical, research and consulting after her Aug. 15 departure, according to a person briefed on the document. She could then return to teaching sociology at a salary of $170,000.

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