At U.Va., the Longest Days

June 19, 2012 — One of the longest days in University of Virginia history began early and stretched into two days.

On Monday morning, Rector Helen E. Dragas met with the Faculty Senate Executive Council. Shortly after 3 p.m., Dragas delivered opening remarks at a special meeting of the Board of Visitors affirming the board's decision to ask President Teresa A. Sullivan to step down. Shortly after, Sullivan addressed the board for the last time. Meanwhile, on the Lawn, a faculty-led vigil drew an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people, including students, staff and community members, and WTJU, U.Va.'s community radio station, broadcast live from the foot of the Rotunda steps,

And nearly 12 hours later, in the wee hours of Tuesday, the board emerged from a protracted closed session and named Carl P. Zeithaml, dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, as interim president. (Read the full press release here.)

Before the board went into super-executive session to discuss the selection of an interim, Dragas addressed the U.Va. community, expressing "sincere regret for the pain, anger and confusion" after the board's unexpected announcement on June 10 that Sullivan had resigned. (Full statement here.)

"We certainly never wished nor intended to ignite such a reaction from the community of trust and honor that we all love so dearly," Dragas said.

The board is charged with making such difficult decisions. "While the broader U.Va. community – our students, faculty, alumni and donors, among others – have varied and important interactions and touch-points with our University leadership," she said, "the board is the one entity that has a unique vantage point that enables us to oversee the big picture of those interactions, and how the leadership shapes the strategic trajectory of the University."

Earlier in the day, the leadership of the Faculty Senate had met with Dragas. After that meeting, the senators issued a statement calling, among other things, for Sullivan to be reinstated and for Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington to resign. (Full statement here.) On Sunday evening, the full Faculty Senate had ratified its Executive Council's vote of no-confidence in the rector, vice rector and board.

Addressing the crowd on the Lawn while the board met Monday afternoon, Faculty Senate Chair George Cohen, a law professor, reiterated the statement to the crowd on the Lawn.

"Everyone is acting in what they perceive as the best interest of the University," he said. "We as faculty are acting in the University's best interest as we see it."

Sullivan spoke to the board for about 10 minutes during its executive session. In her remarks, published later, she rejected the board's notion of "strategic dynamism."

"I have been described as an incrementalist," she said. "It is true. Sweeping action may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership, but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear."

The change she led in the past 22 months, Sullivan said, has been carefully planned and executed in collaboration with the faculty and administrators. "This is the best, most constructive, most long-lasting, and beneficial way to change a university," she said. "Until the last 10 days, the change at U.Va. has not been disruptive change, and it has not been high-risk change." (Full statement here.)

Just before her board appearance, Sullivan emerged from Pavilion V and stepped out onto the Lawn. Cheers and applause swelled from the crowd, which parted to allow her to march with her husband, law professor Douglas Laycock, down the middle of the Lawn to the Rotunda. She smiled broadly, and well-wishers patted her back as she passed.

Sullivan's sudden appearance and the crowd reaction was "very emotional," said Curry School of Education professor Carolyn Callahan, a member of the Faculty Senate's Executive Council. "I think we've all had a very difficult week on the Executive Council. … We saw a vision of what we worked for pass by us. We hoped to see that vision continue."

After her remarks, Sullivan emerged, again to a loud ovation. She paused at the bottom of the stairs and briefly addressed the crowd, thanking them for their support and praising the work of the faculty in making U.Va "a great university."

"That's the important thing – that the University of Virginia remain a great University," she said.

As the evening wore on and midnight came and went, a few dozen people kept the vigil outside the Rotunda, waiting for a final word from inside the board room. Inside the Rotunda, reporters and TV cameras waited wearily.

At 2:33 a.m., the board emerged with its selection of Zeithaml to serve as interim president and it adjourned after an 11-minute open session.

– by Marian Anderfuren and Dan Heuchert