Deans’ Message: Reinstate Terry Sullivan

Yesterday afternoon, the Deans of the various divisions of UVA issued the following statement to the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia and to the media.  The statement itself identified none of the co-authors.   I participated in preparing this statement and lend my support to it.

[If you are reading this from afar and are unacquainted with the context, please refer to media reports summarized here.]

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TO: Board of Visitors, University of Virginia

FROM: Deans of the Colleges, University of Virginia

DATE: June 21, 2012

RE: Reinstatement of Teresa Sullivan, PhD as President of the University of Virginia

We, the deans of the Colleges of the University of Virginia, respectfully request that the Board of Visitors (BOV) reconsider their decision of June 8, 2012 and restore Teresa A. Sullivan to the position of President of the University of Virginia.

The Deans do not make this suggestion lightly. We are aware of both the dedication and responsibility that the BOV has for the University, and the fact that the Board has acted in what they believe are the best interests of the University despite a substantial amount of discord evoked by the decision in the faculty, the student body, and many members of the staff.

Among the reasons for the BOV’s decision were concern for the fiscal status of the University and more rapid action on fiscal and other issues, such as the role of on-line learning in our educational models and proactive approaches to the demographic changes that will occur in the faculty (retirements, etc.) in the next 5-8 years.

Appointment of an interim President (Carl Zeithaml, the esteemed Dean of the highly rated McIntire School of Commerce) will clearly delay rapid action on the fiscal issues and other substantial changes that would await the installation of a permanent President. We recommend strongly that discussions begin immediately to reset the relationship with President Sullivan, reconstitute the team she had put together over that past year, and accelerate the important decisions to be made. The circumstances of the last two weeks have impressed on President Sullivan, the Vice Presidents, and the Deans the seriousness with which the BOV takes the challenges that face the University—and the need to address these issues rapidly, thoughtfully, and in a collegial but urgent fashion.

Open discourse with clear understanding of what the BOV feels must be accomplished as rapidly as possible will be the most efficacious way of accomplishing the plans for such strategic direction. Such a move will restore to the University faculty, students, and all of the Deans—who will be charged with developing and implementing such strategic plans—a sense of joint ownership and responsibility that will energize us and go a long way to assuaging the emotions of these groups—including alumni and donors—who currently feel upset and disenfranchised.

The determination of the BOV to stick to their plans for the stewardship of the University is extremely admirable, and speaks to a genuine and deep concern for the institution’s welfare and future—beyond the gifts of time and dedication you all give to UVA as part of your service. However, it is clear after nearly two weeks of outrage, indignation, upset, threats of withdrawal of support and loyalty, that the people of the University of Virginia, and their ideas, which together comprise the University much more than buildings or landscapes, regard the decision as a mistake made in the absence of open discourse and courtesy. A reconsideration of the actions by both the BOV and President Sullivan can change what will surely have long-term adverse effects on the University [and how it is viewed both inside and outside the walls], into an instructive lesson on the powers of thoughtfulness, reconsideration, fairness, and the powers of an open mind as advocated by our founder.

The deans are the administrators who hear directly from the BOV AND all of our other constituents on a regular basis [increasingly in the past two weeks, as we are sure you have as well]. We recognize that the BOV frequently must make decisions based on information to which not everyone can have access. Indeed, it is a position in which deans find themselves very frequently. As deans start out in their administrative positions [no matter how fine a scholar s/he have been prior to their administrative appointment] they learn from every decision they make. We ask that the BOV and President Sullivan be informed by the reaction of the students, faculty, and friends of the University, and consider the galvanization of the administration, faculty, students, alumni, donors and, dare we say, the BOV members yourselves, by restitution of the President and serious and focused attention to the issues that led to this dilemma in the first place.

We commit to working to address the issues with the BOV, the Vice Presidents, and President Sullivan immediately. We can accomplish this without the alternate but unavoidably slow pathway of another year-long presidential search, potential changes of some senior leadership that usually accompanies change at the top, and the scar that it is clear that will be with us, unavoidably, for a long time if we do not make a course alteration now.

We ask for your wisdom and reconsideration. We will respond as professionals no matter what the decision of the BOV is, but know that there will be excitement, rededication and a real sense of accomplishment and hope for the future among all of our constituents if we can work out a middle path. We stand ready to help with information, individual or group discussion, and all necessary discretion to help with the University that we all value so highly.

Finally, please know that we did not offer Dean Zeithaml the opportunity to join in this communication, as we felt it would put him in an extraordinarily difficult position even to be asked.

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9 Responses to Deans’ Message: Reinstate Terry Sullivan

  1. Bob A. (Boston, MA) says:

    Appreciate the efforts of the Deans to put their considerable weight behind this path forward. On the surface, it would seem difficult to rebuild the trust and motivation of all those involved – perhaps most notably Dr. Sullivan herself. But the fact that the Deans believe it to be the best path forward speaks to level of risk they see with the other alternatives. This is truly a test of leadership and if the BOV reconsiders and Dr. Sullivan agrees to return that would say a lot about all of them.

    Sad given the damage done to our beloved school, but certainly one heck of a case study on leadership, ethics, governance, etc. no matter the immediate decision. Thank you for your dedication and love of UVA/Darden.

  2. Seth Kim says:

    Dean Bruner,

    I appreciate your transparency on the matter. I fully support you as well.

    I had a question: is it correct to assume that while President Sullivan officially “resigned” from her post, that she actually wishes to return?

  3. Alexandra Ranson says:

    In the business I run, I’ve found my most valuable asset to be the support and trust of my senior colleagues. As a unified team, we can tackle any challenge, no matter how testing. Without that trust, nothing meaningful can be achieved: certainly not major and complex strategic change.

    The practical arguments for reinstating the President, rather than the stagnation of appointing an interim President and kicking off a new global search, are very appealing. But I fear it’s just unrealistic. Regardless of what mediation is undertaken, and how grown up everyone promises to be, the trust and support required for unified leadership can’t be rebuilt overnight from its current shattered base. And even then it might not work.
    The only other option: for the Governor to sack the entire BOV and start afresh with a new open-minded, baggage-free team under President Sullivan, is equally improbable. Can there be a single qualified and influential person in the Commonwealth who doesn’t have a strong opinion on this matter?

  4. Tim Flanigan says:

    Dear Dean Brunner,

    I very much appreciate your efforts to communicate clearly rearding this unfortunate incident. A WSJ editorial published today (“The Virginia Fracas”) stated that you alone among all the University deans had not signed the deans’ letter. I assume this is not correct given your statements above. Could you please clarify that for us?

    Also, I would like to know whether you believe President Sullivan has displayed an appropriate “bias toward action” in dealing with the Board and the issues it has raised concerning the University’s future. If she is reinstated, what advice would you give her in that regard?

    Best regards,

    Tim Flanigan
    EMBA 2012

  5. Cathy L. says:

    Dean Bruner,

    I would imagine that you shouldn’t feel compelled to respond to every report out there, but do you have any comments on this morning’s (6/25) WSJ op ed piece? Two things struck me: the seemingly incorrect information that the “one dean who didn’t sign the letter runs Virginia’s graduate business school” and the assertion by Sullivan that she will only return on the premise that Dragas “is fired.” It is admirable that the University is boldly facing these challenges but this vitriol isn’t helpful or constructive. Perhaps all parties can provide a model for those a little to the north and east of Charlottesville for how folks of disparate mindsets can unite to solve the challenges that lie ahead. We owe it to Mr. Jefferson. Thank you for your tireless efforts on behalf of the students, alumni and the staff particularly during these trying times.

  6. Matt Fischer says:

    Dear Seth, yes, my understanding is that President Sullivan resigned when informed that the BOV had assembled more than the supermajority needed to terminate her position.

  7. Pam Calaru says:

    Alexandra,
    The terms of service for some BOV members expire at the end of this month, including Rector Dragas. She would need to be reappointed by Gov McDonnell, which some say is unlikely. With the Vice Rector having already resigned, the BOV may have a fresher face moving forward. All speculation at this point, however.

  8. Nancy Powell says:

    Dean Bruner,

    Please let us know if you did or did not sign the Deans’ letter that you published here. Did the WSJ article today get its facts wrong? There is such a critical need for more clarity and simple, direct communication.

    I appreciate your consistently thoughtful blog, and look forward to more insight/perspective on Darden’s role in this saga. Lots of lessons here.

    Nancy

  9. James Walker says:

    Dean Bruner,

    I have always been immensely proud of my affiliation with Darden and never more than in these past 2 weeks. While the press has painted Darden in a negative light, you have managed this very difficult time with grace and resolve and have been an example to leaders and aspiring leaders throughout our community.

    We are fortunate to have you.

    Jim

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