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Bad feelings still roil University of Virginia

McDonnell: Ouster ‘should have been handled better’

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said Tuesday the sudden, forced resignation of the University of Virginia's president should have been handled better. He declined to say whether he would reappoint the university official said to be behind the ouster.

"I would have liked to have seen things handled a bit differently," he said on a conference call just hours after Carl Zeithami, dean of the undergraduate business school, was appointed interim president by the university's board of visitors. "This has been a tough nine days for one of the world's great universities."

Mr. McDonnell, who is wrapping up a two-week trade mission to Europe, commended the leadership of former university President Teresa Sullivan and of Rector Helen E. Dragas, who heads the board of visitors. Ms. Dragas reportedly told Ms. Sullivan on June 8 that she had enough votes on the board to remove her and that Ms. Sullivan could either resign or be fired.

He said there should have been more transparency surrounding Ms. Sullivan's resignation less than two years into her contract.

The Republican governor added that beyond making appointments to the 16-member board of visitors, which is evenly divided between his appointees and members appointed by former Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, it is not a governor's job to "micromanage" the board or the university.

"It's not possible, nor feasible, nor good management, nor consistent with a reasonable chain of command for a governor to make a decision about a president or a provost or others — boards do that," he said.

Vice Rector Mark J. Kington resigned Tuesday, writing in a letter to Mr. McDonnell that he hoped the move would bring "a needed healing process" to the university.

The term for Ms. Dragas, originally appointed to the board of visitors in 2008 by Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, expires in less than two weeks. Mr. McDonnell did not say Tuesday whether he will grant her another term.

"I'll make board announcements before July 1," he said.

The tumultuous situation began with Ms. Sullivan's abrupt resignation announcement on June 10. Ms. Dragas reportedly worked behind the scenes to help orchestrate an ouster in an apparent dispute over the future direction and mission of the school.

In a lengthy statement defending her performance, Ms. Sullivan said that "a university that does not teach the full range of arts and sciences will no longer be a university. Certainly it will no longer be respected as such by its former peers."

The conflict points to a larger discussion about higher education, both in the state and around the country — how liberal arts schools must weigh their traditional array of courses in the face of dwindling resources and an increasing demand for expertise in sectors such as technology and engineering.

Ms. Sullivan warned that rapid change upsets the "delicate equilibrium" of reasons UVa. retains quality faculty — compensation and the ability to participate with peers "of the highest grade."

William Wulf, a computer science professor, was more blunt in a scathing resignation email to Mr. Zeithami.

"A BOV that so poorly understands UVa, 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," he wrote. "And, frankly, I think you should be ashamed to be party to this debacle!"

Mr. Wulf and his wife, Anita Jones, both hold the title university professor — a rank held by only about 13 of the 3,300 faculty members at the university.

Delegate Joseph D. Morrissey, Henrico Democrat, is one of many still hunting for answers amid reports that Ms. Sullivan's departure came after a monthslong effort to oust her. He pointed on Tuesday to an obscure 1919 state statute that gives the General Assembly the authority to inquire into Ms. Sullivan's "forced resignation." Mr. Morrissey called on Delegate Robert Tata, Virginia Beach Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, to haul Ms. Dragas and Mr. Kington before the committee for questioning, lest hearsay become accepted fact.

"Thus far, the rector has not addressed the specific inquiries from the Senate faculty, media, and the student body," he said. "Accordingly, rumors, innuendo, misunderstandings, and rampant confusion flourish. This is unacceptable."

Mr. McDonnell said if that is indeed the prerogative, it would be up to the legislature.

"The General Assembly is certainly free to do whatever it believes appropriate within its power," he said.

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