CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The University of Virginia reinstated its popular president Tuesday less than three weeks after ousting her in a secretive move that infuriated students and faculty, had the governor threatening to fire the entire governing board and sparked a debate about the best way to operate public universities in an era of tight finances.
The 15-member Board of Visitors voted unanimously to give Teresa Sullivan her job back during a brief meeting at the university’s historic Rotunda. Shortly after the vote, Sullivan thanked the board for its renewed confidence in her leadership of the prestigious public university founded by Thomas Jefferson.
The board’s swift reinstatement highlighted a dispute over how one of the finest universities in the U.S. — public or private — should move forward to address multiple challenges, including sharply diminished financial resources and pressure to increase its presence online.
Sullivan had signaled to the board prior to her ouster that she advocated “incremental” change — not the bold, swift steps advocated by others such as Rector Helen Dragas, the driving force behind efforts to replace her.
“I want to partner with you in bringing about what’s best for the university,” she said as cheers erupted from supporters who had gathered outside the Rotunda.
The newly reinstated president then headed outside where hundreds of faculty, students and other supporters regaled her with applause and the university’s anthem, “Good Ole’ Song.”
“You have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am not alone,” said Sullivan, who became U.Va.’s eighth president and its first female leader when she was named in August 2010. “I believe that together we’ll do great things for the university.”
Critics had compared how the board’s executive committee handled Sullivan’s abrupt firing — with no formal vote, it was announced June 10 that she would step down Aug. 15 — to a coup d’etat, and said it violated Jefferson’s stated principles of honesty, respect and honor. The university is fiercely proud of its intellectual traditions and likes to call itself “Mr. Jefferson’s university.”
The ouster triggered days of online protests, massive protests on the campus’s historic grounds, and calls by deans, faculty, students and alumni for Sullivan’s return.
Dragas later said the university under Sullivan’s leadership wasn’t acting quickly enough to address state and federal funding reductions, online education delivery and other challenges. She didn’t offer specific examples.
In a statement June 21, she cited a rapidly shifting health care environment that she said will necessitate changes at the U.Va. Medical Center; heightened pressure to better allocate scarce resources; changing technology; and federal and state funding challenges.
U.Va. expects to get about 10 percent of its operating budget from the state of Virginia this fiscal year. Public funding per in-state student has fallen to an estimated $8,310 in 2012-13, down from $15,274 per in-state student in 2000-01, according to the university.
Sullivan defended her performance at a board meeting June 18, outlining some of her initiatives since taking office, including hiring a new provost and chief operating officer and adopting a new budget model that decentralizes financial planning. She also acknowledged being an “incrementalist,” favoring measured planning and collaboration with faculty and other constituents over what she called the board’s “corporate, top-down leadership.” She said the latter wasn’t in the university’s best interests.
On Tuesday, a majority of the 15-member governing board was needed to approve reinstatement. Yet there were only a few statements, no debate and no opposition voiced in a meeting lasting about 20 minutes. Dragas opened Tuesday by saying she believed the university would emerge stronger from the controversy. She again apologized for the way the matter was initially handled.
“The situation became enormously dramatized and emotionally charged,” she said. “I sincerely apologize for the way this was presented and you deserve better.”
She added that she looked forward to moving on, citing the best interests of the university community.
“I believe real progress is more possible than ever now,” Dragas told the group shortly before the roll call vote was taken. “It is unfortunate that we had to have a near-death experience to get here.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell, who appointed half of the board members, had warned Friday that he would seek the resignations of all the members if the group failed to resolve the controversy Tuesday.
Dragas and one other board member are up for reappointment and two others have terms that are expiring shortly. The governor must announce his decisions on all four appointments by July 1.
After the vote, McDonnell, whose twin sons will be U.Va. sophomores in the fall, said he looked forward to the president and the board working together in a spirit of cooperation.
“The past few weeks have not been easy for the University, and all those who love it. There has been too little transparency; too much vitriol. Too little discussion; too much blame,” McDonnell said. “Now, with today’s Board action, the time has come for Mr. Jefferson’s University to move forward. The statements made today by Board members and President Sullivan were poignant and gracious and set the right tone for collaboration ahead.”
Sullivan, 62, is an eminent scholar of labor-force demography. Before coming to Charlottesville, she served as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan, another top public university.