Zeithaml: Love for the University Led Him to Accept Interim Presidency

While acknowledging the "deeply flawed" process that led to his appointment early Tuesday morning as interim president of the University of Virginia, Carl P. Zeithaml said he "had no choice" but to accept the post.

"The reason I feel I had no choice is that I love the University," he said.

Zeithaml met the media Wednesday afternoon in Rouss Hall, home to the McIntire School of Commerce, which he has served as dean for the past 15 years. Several deans and vice presidents and Office of the President staff members also attended.

He said his top priority would be to restore trust within the University community.

"I always thought so highly of my colleagues, and I thought so highly of the people that I worked with. And I trusted them," he said. "It is devastating to me that we have lost that trust in the last 10 days.

"My number one goal in all of this is to try to make sure that step by step, day by day. meeting by meeting, conversation by conversation, we're going to rebuild that trust. I'm committed to trying to do that."

He vowed that he would be more of an activist president than a caretaker, noting that he had been active in a previous stint as interim dean at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

"That's my intent here – to do everything I can to work with the senior leadership team at the University, whether its academic or fundraising or the new financial model, whatever it happens to be, and to move as smartly and aggressively forward as we can with those activities."

Zeithaml is to formally take the reins from Teresa A. Sullivan on Aug. 16. Sullivan resigned unexpectedly June 10, citing "philosophical differences" with U.Va.'s governing Board of Visitors.

The board's decision to ask for Sullivan's resignation after only 22 months on the job has sparked an outcry from the University community against the board. The Faculty Senate overwhelming approved a vote of no confidence in the board and called for the resignations of Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington. Kington resigned Tuesday, hours after the vote to appoint Zeithaml.

Dragas phoned Zeithaml two days after Sullivan's departure, he said, to seek his input. She asked if he would consider being a candidate for the permanent presidency; he declined. She then asked him to meet with her and Kington.

They met June 14, and Zeithaml said he had plenty of questions about the circumstances surrounding Sullivan's departure. Kington again asked if Zeithaml would consider pursuing the presidency, and he again declined.

They then asked whether he would consider the interim job, he said. "And very honestly, my reaction to that was that I would do whatever I can to help the University move forward.

"I could see even then – and obviously it's only become more pronounced since then – that we had a problem, that it was going in the wrong direction. And once again, I care so much about the place that I said I will do whatever it is that I think, and that others that I respect think will help."

While in England on McIntire business, he heard from the board very early Tuesday morning during its all-night session and was offered the post.

He stressed that "I have absolutely no intention of being a candidate for the permanent job" and looks forward to returning to the McIntire deanship.

Asked about the circumstances leading to his appointment, Zeithaml said, "I think everybody recognizes that the process was deeply flawed. I don't condone it."

Asked whether he supported the board's action, he said plainly, "I don't support the board's decision to remove her."

As one condition of his acceptance of the interim presidency, Zeithaml insisted that John Simon remain as executive vice president and provost, and said he had met with other senior leaders to seek their commitment to stay on. At the Faculty Senate meeting on Sunday, Simon said he was questioning whether U.Va. is still an institution he would want to lead. At Wednesday's press conference, he said he had committed to work with Zeithaml during the interim presidency.

Emails to and from Dragas and Kington released to the media this week under the Freedom of Information Act suggested that online education was very much on their minds as they discussed Sullivan's possible departure in the weeks leading up to June 10. Zeithaml stressed that the question of how the University will approach online education will receive prompt attention as he takes office.

"Everyone – my dean colleagues and the provost – we're all wrestling with it," he said. "Some of our competitors have made major moves in that area. I think we all have a commitment to really explore how the University is going to go into that. I think that's a big, big issue that all of higher education is dealing with."

Later, he added, "The online issue, we can't wait on that. We really need to dig into that and decide what is the best match for the University of Virginia. What Stanford does or what MIT does may not be right for us."

Zeithaml also said he has been in contact with some of the University's donors. Some have expressed support, and at least one suggested he might increase his contribution. But others have threatened to withhold support, he said.

"I respect their right to do that, but I don't agree with it," Zeithaml said. "You're only hurting the students and faculty and staff. Those donations are critical to the academic mission and critical to the execution of the overall mission of the University."

Even as the interim president was being introduced, the Faculty Senate was continuing to work for Sullivan's reinstatement.

The Senate hosted a daylong open house at the new OpenGrounds space in The Corner Building, where faculty were invited to sign up for about 18 working groups to address various aspects of their efforts, from "assembly of faculty" to "electronic communications." Professors could also pen questions for members of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee to pose to Zeithaml at a meeting scheduled for Thursday.

Despite the broiling heat outside, a steady stream of people came and went. Around 2 p.m., about 20 people were engaging in earnest conversations, signing up for tasks and writing questions – "What is your role going to be in the hiring process for the new/perm president?," "How does he plan to promote healing as we move forward?"

Faculty Senate Chair George Cohen said the open house was put together in short order, in response to a deluge of communications from faculty members. "We had lots of suggestions, and we're trying to get that energy in one place," he said.

"I think this is all about the faculty's commitment to the University," he said. "We see the University in trouble, and we want to do everything we can to protect and restore the reputation that has been so damaged.

"We're just trying to save the University. That's what we're going to do."

Later in the evening, a Faculty Senate-called silent vigil in support of restoring Sullivan to the presidency drew about 1,000 people to the Lawn.

At his press conference, Zeithaml was realistic about the challenges he faces in the coming months.

Asked what he anticipates saying when he greets incoming students and their families in August, he said, "I would emphasize that the University has been around for almost 200 years. This is a great institution filled with great people, and that the new students who come here and their families are still part of a great community.

"We've had problems, OK? We've had major problems, and I'm not denying that. And it is an issue that needs to be addressed and resolved at multiple levels," Zeithaml said. " But at the end of the day, this is still a university with great faculty, with great students, with great programs, and with great health facilities."

– by Dan Heuchert