The call summoning Teresa Sullivan arrives at 3:30 p.m. June 18, as she lingers on the edge of the Lawn at the University of Virginia, thousands of supporters massed between her and the Rotunda.
Inside, the university’s board awaits her farewell address.
Her husband and elder son trailing, the outgoing U-Va. president wades through the hordes on the sloping green, her steps slowed by outstretched hands.
“U-V-A! U-V-A!” they chant, the din so thunderous Sullivan can barely make out the shouted greetings.
Stay strong, they tell her. Fight back. We’re behind you.
The noise bleeds through the Rotunda walls and into the chamber of the Board of Visitors, where the woman engineering Sullivan’s ouster, Rector Helen Dragas, presides at a crowded oval table.
Sullivan is fortified by the outpouring. Yet she believes, as she takes a seat opposite Dragas, that her tenure is over.
Now is the moment to answer detractors and proclaim what she stands for. Now is the moment to say farewell.
What Teresa Sullivan fails to understand at that moment is that her revival as U-Va.’s leader has begun.
The 18 days of high-octane drama that enveloped the Charlottesville campus is a story of a raw power play gone awry. There were missteps and miscalculations, not just by Dragas and her allies, but also by Sullivan, who did not anticipate the backlash her ouster would ignite.
This narrative is based on scores of interviews with U-Va. officials, professors, alumni and students, as well as state officials. Most participants spoke for themselves. Sullivan and Dragas, who as rector chairs the governing board, declined to be interviewed but spoke through intermediaries.
At first glance, the showdown was between two pioneers — Sullivan, 62, U-Va.’s first female president, and Dragas, 50, the first female rector — with vastly different styles and approaches to education. If Sullivan, a sociologist, was the embodiment of the deliberative scholar, then Dragas, a real estate developer from Virginia Beach, personified the hard-charging business executive.
But the women came to represent something larger than themselves. They embodied two sides of a debate over the future of public higher education.
In Sullivan, the Dragas camp — which included some powerful alumni and board members — saw a roadblock to the creation of the modern university. They believed that U-Va. needed to accelerate technological innovations and pay more attention to the fiscal bottom line.
In Dragas, the Sullivan forces — deans, professors, and many alumni and students — saw nothing less than an assault on the public university’s role in society. If the board could so easily vanquish Sullivan, they asked, what would stop it from going after, say, the German department?
At risk, they insisted, were values and traditions at the core of a classical education.
That impassioned debate uncoiled during a leadership crisis unlike any in the history of the university. “Palace coup meets grassroots rebellion,” Larry Sabato, a prominent politics professor, tweeted at its peak.
At the beginning, there was an e-mail.
At 9:06 p.m. June 7, a Thursday, Dragas sends Sullivan a message that she and Mark Kington, the board’s vice rector, hoped to meet with the president the next day.
“Are you free sometime after 3 pm?” Dragas writes.
Sullivan attaches no special significance to the request.
As recently as November, 15 months after Sullivan became president, the board had given her a favorable evaluation. In May, the board had applauded at a meeting in which one member praised her leadership.
Everything seemed to be going well.
At 7:01 a.m. Friday, Sullivan responds to Dragas, writing in an e-mail that she would be at a retreat for most of the day but could be in her office by 5 p.m.
“Is there anything you would like me to prepare,” Sullivan writes.
No preparation needed, Dragas responds.
What Sullivan doesn’t know is that Dragas has already begun choreographing the president’s exit. The rector had called Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) earlier that week to say the board was about to force Sullivan’s resignation. Dragas was named to the board in 2008 by McDonnell’s Democratic predecessor, Timothy M. Kaine, and her four-year term was to expire July 1.
At 5 p.m., Sullivan greets Dragas and Kington at her office, offering them cold soft drinks before they sit at a small conference table. Sullivan sits at the head of the table, between the rector and vice rector.
Dragas tells Sullivan that the board is unhappy with her performance and that there are significant problems with her management of the university. Why she has not raised these concerns before is unclear.
Sullivan is a good president, Kington tells her, but not a great one. She is moving too slowly to implement the kinds of changes the board seeks. Dragas cites a move to online education as an example.