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Ouster of popular president roils University of Virginia

The University of Virginia is in turmoil over the governing board’s ouster of Teresa Sullivan as president, with even the new interim president saying he disagreed with the decision and the Faculty Senate pushing hard to get her reinstated.

The Board of Visitors stunned university staff and students on June 10 by announcing in a university-wide email that they accepted Sullivan’s resignation, effective Aug. 15. Sullivan, the first woman to hold the post, was in the middle of a five-year contract.

The ouster of Sullivan, who took the job in January 2010 and was popular on campus, ignited a furor at Virginia's flagship university, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819.

On Monday, the board moved to name McIntyre School of Commerce Dean Carl Zeithaml as interim president.

Zeithaml said he agreed to take the interim post because he wanted to move the university in a "very positive way" but “did not agree with the decision to remove” Sullivan.

“We have had a major problem and it is an issue that needs to be addressed and resolved at multiple levels,” said Zeithaml, the longtime dean of the McIntire School of Commerce. He spoke with faculty and reporters during a press conference on Wednesday.

“I view my responsibility as starting to work with my colleagues, students and friends to develop an agenda that can take us forward,” Zeithaml said. He will assume the position effective Aug. 16.

The Board of Visitors serves as the corporate board for the University of Virginia, and its 16 members are responsible for long-term planning for the university. Members are appointed by the governor to serve terms of four years, according to the university.

Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas, in a press conference with Vice Rector Mark Kington on June 10, called Sullivan’s resignation a “difficult decision that was mutually reached by President Sullivan and the Board of Visitors.”

Dragas, who is head of the board, cited a “philosophical difference” between Sullivan and the governing board about the “vision of the future of the university.” Kington stood by Dragas’ side and did not say a word during the public address. (The Washington Post has a profile of Dragas, posted Thursday.

The board said it had discussions over the past year with Sullivan about developing and acting on a "clear and concrete strategic vision."

Read the full text of the email sent by Dragas on

The Washington Post reported that the board believed Sullivan was unwilling to consider big program cuts and reluctant “to approach the school with the bottom-line mentality of a corporate chief executive.”

Here’s the Post’s take on the source of the friction between Dragas and Sullivan:

Dragas had reservations about Sullivan from the start, the sources said. By the time she took the reins as rector, Dragas was becoming convinced that Sullivan would not make the hard spending decisions necessary to keep U-Va. competitive in a volatile higher education marketplace. In conversations before and since the ouster, Dragas has portrayed Sullivan as an adequate day-to-day caretaker but someone incapable of long-term vision.

On Monday during a rally on campus supporting her, Sullivan defended her performance and leadership approach, saying, "Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work,” according to

Sullivan refused reporter questions and left the university through a gantlet of cheering -- and some tearful – supporters, reported.

“I want to thank you for what you do and for making this such a great university,” Sullivan said. “At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. University of Virginia must remain a great university.”

Read full text of Sullivan’s statement (pdf.) provided by

Sullivan was elected to her position in January 2010, having previously served as the provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan, according to

More resignations follow
The University of Virginia's Faculty Senate and other groups called for Kington and Dragas to step down as they severely criticized the board's handling of Sullivan's removal. 

On Monday, Kington said in a letter to Gov. Bob McDonnell that he was stepping down immediately as vice rector and also would quit the board, nearly two years before the end of his term.

"I believe that this is the right thing to do and I hope that it will begin a needed healing process at the university," Kington said in the letter. A call to Kington's office in Alexandria on Wednesday wasn't immediately returned.

Last week, 33 department chairs and program directors signed a letter protesting the resignation, Reuters reported. They described Sullivan, the university's first female president, as "an extraordinary academic leader, with superb administrative abilities, the heart of a faculty member, and evident strength of character," according to Reuters.

Computer science professor William A. Wulf said he was among those leaving the university, effective immediately, to show his support of Sullivan.

"I want no part of this ongoing fiasco," Wulf said.

Wulf and his wife, University of Virginia computer science professor Anita Jones, hold the prestigious university professor designation, which only a handful of university faculty members hold.

A board "that so poorly understands U.Va., and academic culture more generally, is going to make a lot more dumb decisions, so the University is headed for disaster, and I don't want to be any part of that," Wulf said in a letter Tuesday.

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