University of Virginia Governance Investigation - 2013 Update

Read the original report of the investigating committee.

The Association’s Ninety-eighth Annual Meeting in 2012 expressed its “deep concern over the action of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors in seeking and obtaining the resignation of Dr. Teresa A. Sullivan from the presidency of the university, reportedly without previous or subsequent explanation to her, to the other chief administrative officers, and to the university’s faculty and student body, of the specific grounds for its displeasure with her performance.” Expressing dismay that the board’s precipitate action ignored due process for the president and the legitimate interests of the UVA faculty, the 2012 annual meeting called upon the board to reconsider.  

The annual meeting’s resolution was part of a growing groundswell of opposition confronting the board from all segments of the UVA academic community and beyond. It was followed by an emergency Sunday meeting of the full Faculty Senate, which overwhelmingly voted “no confidence” in the board and requested the continuance of President Sullivan in office, representation by the UVA faculty as voting members of the board, and the resignation of the board’s rector, Helen E. Dragas, who had initiated the action against the president. Four days later, Rector Dragas issued a statement expanding on her position that UVA needed different administrative leadership, and the following day, June 21, AAUP president Rudy Fichtenbaum issued a letter announcing authorization of the AAUP investigation.

On June 26, with the opposition to the board’s position at a boiling point and with the governor of Virginia having issued an ultimatum that he would replace the entire board if it failed to resolve the issue of UVA’s presidency by that date, the board voted unanimously to offer  reinstatement to President Sullivan, whose acceptance followed. It could accurately be said that the Association’s investigation, announced in record time, had served its purpose with this “happy ending” for the president and her supporters. The UVA events of last June, however, raised vital issues of academic governance and a university’s purpose that concern the entire higher education community. The Association’s leadership thus decided to proceed with the investigation, focused now on assessment from an AAUP perspective of the broader issues for institutions of higher learning.

The investigating committee found that the events at the University of Virginia resulted from “a failure by those charged with institutional oversight to understand the institution over which they presided and to engage with the administration and the faculty in an effort to be well informed.”  The committee concluded that the faculty senate was right not to lift its vote of no confidence in the board of visitors and that the university’s accrediting body was correct in placing the university on warning because of the board’s actions.

Other findings of the report include the following:

The rector and the board made no effort to engage with the president or the faculty on the underlying issues the rector claimed to be at stake.

The events . . . might be reasonably explained in this way: A headstrong rector, imbued with a belief in “engaged trusteeship,” strove to remove a president who failed to conform to her image of bold academic captaincy. She did so with single-minded zeal: without informing herself of the essentials in the underlying matters she claimed to give rise to that drive, even without perceiving the relevance of the evalu-ation process the board had adopted a mere seven months before.

There is no reason why, in the exercise of its authority to remove a president, the board would not wish to be well informed: to have before it the considered judgment of those most intimately involved in the actual conduct of the university’s teaching, research, and service missions, especially when the board’s stated concerns involve the president’s oversight of these very functions. Indeed, had the board consulted the faculty in this instance, it is at least arguable that it would not have acted as it did.

Unaccountably, the board’s leadership and the rest of the board do not seem to have followed the prescribed standards for presidential evaluation they had adopted the previous fall, nor did they ever conduct the kind of intensive evaluation of President Sullivan’s overall performance one would have expected them to undertake prior to reaching a decision to remove her from office. Furthermore, the board members had never explicitly, or apparently even implicitly, conveyed to the president their con-cerns about her allegedly unsatisfactory administration of her office or given her an opportunity to respond to and correct any shortcomings they might have noted. . . . What is more, the full board never met together as a body to deliberate over the concerns raised by the rector and others, nor did the board ever conduct a formal vote before taking the action that it did.

Upon the publication of its report three months ago, with its conclusions as of March 1, the investigating committee stated that it would prepare the following update for the Committee on College and University Governance to include in its report on the case to the Association’s 2013 annual meeting in June.

A May 2013 Update

Our conclusions on March 1 were that some progress toward more responsible board behavior had been made following the massive breakdown in governance brought about by the board of visitors under Rector Helen Dragas in its treatment of President Teresa Sullivan but that more remained to be done. We concluded that the faculty senate was correct in not yet lifting its vote of no confi-dence in the board and that the Southern Association’s Commission on Colleges was correct at its December accreditation meeting in placing the board on warning, pending further review.

Progress toward closer board-faculty relations was indicated in a February 8 letter from the rector, included in the addendum to our report, stating that members of the faculty have been appointed to serve on the board’s various standing committees.  In addition, on March 14 the board of visitors issued a statement asserting that the board and the president have worked together in making decisions openly and in engaging faculty, staff, and students with a focus on improving academic quality, ensuring student access and affordability, and achieving sustainable funding. “The critical role our faculty plays in contributing to success in each of these areas,” the board wrote, “cannot be overstated.”  Between these positive expressions, however, events were more mixed.

On January 29, Governor Robert McDonnell’s reappointment of Ms. Dragas as rector became official with its confirmation by the Virginia General Assembly. On February 2, Rector Dragas responded to a November 5 draft from President Sullivan of the president’s goals for the 2012-13 academic year by sending her a revision, stating that the revised version would be accepted if the president did not want to refine the goals further by February 8.

The rector’s goals were sixty-five in number, most of them addressing details relating to the medical center and to financial matters. The president, replying on February 6, remarked that “other flagship universities typically have a one-page list of six or seven high-level strategic goals to accomplish within a year.” She stated that she had never previously seen twenty-two of the goals and that no one had previously discussed them with her. Some of the other goals had been dis-cussed and she had raised objections, she wrote, and they have now been restated without noting her concerns. She characterized the goals as examples of “micromanagement,” and as narrowly operational, some of them “in fact tasks, and not presidential tasks at that.” With all these items added, she stated, the rector’s list had deleted her own “most urgent goal, which is raising compen-sation, especially for faculty. . . . The retention and hiring of faculty is our greatest challenge, and improving compensation is critical to solving that challenge.”

The president called several of the stated goals impossible to achieve and the sheer number close to unattainable in the few remaining months of the academic year. “I am not averse to stretch goals,” she wrote, “but I also do not care to be set up to fail.”

The UVA Faculty Senate on March 4 formally responded to the news of the rector’s February actions, stating that “Rector Dragas’s reported conduct does not embody the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation that we expected to follow the reinstatement of President Sullivan. Unfortunately, it raises the very concerns about minority control that led UVA’s accrediting agency to put us on warning last fall and suggests that Rector Dragas has not yet learned the governance lessons from last summer’s crisis. This kind of behavior must end.”

At its meeting the previous week (February 22-24), the board of visitors had approved the faculty salary increases that the rector had deleted from the listed goals and had approved a more realistic set of goals than those the rector had detailed. The senate’s March 4 statement went on to note these board actions, adding that “the Board continues to take steps to improve its internal gover-nance processes. We applaud the Board’s efforts and are eager to continue working with the Board in mutual commitment to the University’s excellence.”

The rector replied the next day to the senate’s statement, taking issue with what she called its one-sided public comments on “a confidential personnel matter” and defending her own role in a complex and sometimes lengthy deliberative process before a consensus on proceeding had been reached. She stated that she, as well as the entire board, fully supported the goal of raising salaries while directing the development of a long-range financial plan which would ensure that expecta-tions on compensation could be met. She said that she echoed the president’s stated commitment to work together in bringing UVA “to greater heights of excellence” and invited the senate to join with them “to build trust and increase collaboration.”

A meeting of the board on April 3 witnessed testimony by a series of administrative officers on the need for more money for increases in salary and improvement in the quality of undergraduate education. Most board members are reported to have listened quietly while a few questioned the merits of a tuition increase and suggested cuts in academic programs to offset the need for it.

Meeting next on April 18, the board addressed the issue of funding.  Rector Dragas reportedly argued that UVA leaders had long used decreased state funding as a “scapegoat” for constant increases in spending, and she and another board member voted against a package of tuition increases. She also threatened to vote against a capital-improvement plan which included a maintenance facility that carried a high estimated price.  Nevertheless, the board voted to increase tuition by 3.8 percent for in-state undergraduates and 4.8 percent for out-of-state students. Engineering students were to pay an additional $2,000 for tuition, and charges were to be increased for on-campus housing and meal plans.

At its May meeting, the board of visitors elected member William M. Goodwin as its new vice rector and approved President Sullivan’s budget for the next fiscal year. 

In June, Ms. Dragas’s 2012-13 term as rector ends. She will have served the maximum number of terms as rector allowed under the board’s regulations, which call for the current vice rector, Richmond attorney George Keith Martin, to assume the office upon her leaving it. Were she to remain in office, the investigating committee’s current conclusions on the board’s role in university governance would likely not differ greatly from the conclusions as of March 1. With a new rector, however, and with administrative leaders, the faculty senate, the AAUP chapter, and, it seems, many if not most board members expressing commitment to a cooperative relationship, the committee now concludes with guarded optimism about adherence to the principles of shared governance in the months ahead. We expect the Association’s file on the case to be kept open until it can be said that our optimism was justified. 

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The Committee on College and University Governance concurs with the findings and conclusions of the investigating committee. It condemns the deplorable actions of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors under its outgoing rector. The committee sees reason to hope that principles of shared academic governance will prevail under the board’s incoming rector and has asked the AAUP’s local chapter, the AAUP’s Virginia Conference, and the national staff to keep it well informed.