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University of Virginia board reinstates ousted president after outcry

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan weaves through supporters and media after she was reinstated on Tuesday.
University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan weaves through supporters and media after she was reinstated on Tuesday.Preston Gannaway / The Virginian-Pilot via AP

The University of Virginia reinstated its president Tuesday just over three weeks after ousting her amid outcry from faculty, donors and students.

The 15-member Board of Visitors voted unanimously to reinstate President Teresa Sullivan during a brief meeting, after a motion from a former university rector, according to a university press release.

Outside the meeting, faculty, students and others had organized a demonstration to show support for Sullivan, the university’s eighth president and first female leader.

“I want to partner with you in bringing about what’s best for the university,” Sullivan, 62, said after reinstatement.

University Rector Helen Dragas, who was central in the initial move to oust the president, apologized for actions that sparked the controversy and pledged that she will work with Sullivan to help the university emerge stronger than before, according to a university press release.

“The situation became enormously dramatized and emotionally charged,” Dragas told the group before the vote was taken. “I sincerely apologize for the way this was presented and you deserve better. I believe real progress is more possible than ever now.” 

The vote to reinstate the president came after 17 tumultuous days that began with the board’s sudden announcement June 10 that they had accepted Sullivan’s resignation midway through a five-year contract.

U.Va officials said that Sullivan would step down in August, citing concerns for state and federal funding, declining faculty compensation and accountability for academic quality and productivity.

“Yet in the face of these challenges, the University still lacks an updated strategic plan,” Dragas wrote in statement to the board last week. “We deserve better – the rapid development of a plan that includes goals, costs, sources of funds, timelines and individual accountability.”

Sullivan's unexpected ouster triggered complaints about the board's explanation and brought a groundswell of support for her.

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Sullivan defended her performance at a board meeting last week, citing initiatives she had taken, including hiring a new provost and chief operating officer and adopting a new budget model that decentralizes financial planning.

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. As the meeting opened Tuesday, Dragas said the decision of the board would be definitive on the matter.

The board on Monday named 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.

After Tuesday’s meeting of the board, member W. Heywood Fralin acknowledged missteps had been made.

“It is my opinion that everyone agrees the process was flawed,” he said. “It can never be repeated when important decisions are being made.”

Fralin said he also disagreed with Sullivan’s resignation in the first place.

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