CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia’s president and governing board leader have, in public, maintained an air of united collegiality for the past eight months, hoping to move beyond the summer’s leadership crisis.
Out of sight, tension has continued to build between U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan and U-Va. Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas as they struggle for control of the university’s agenda and priorities, according to several people close to the situation.
In recent weeks, the conflict hit a boiling point. Days after Virginia lawmakers confirmed Dragas’s reappointment to the board in January, the rector sent the president a lengthy and detailed list of goals to meet this school year. Sullivan, apparently incensed, responded by sending the entire board an e-mail arguing that the 65 goals constitute, among other things, “micromanagement.”
“The sheer number of goals is close to impossible to achieve, especially with only five months left in the academic year,” Sullivan wrote in a Feb. 6 e-mail obtained by The Washington Post. “I am not averse to stretch goals, but I also do not care to be set up to fail.”
The university is still recovering from the events of the summer, when Dragas and another board leader asked Sullivan to resign in early June without publicly providing reasons. Faculty revolted, formally demanding Sullivan’s return and the resignation of responsible board members. They were soon joined by thousands of alumni, students, donors and others. After 18 days of upheaval, the board reinstated Sullivan.
The crisis brought national attention to the school, which Thomas Jefferson founded, as well as challenges facing public universities across the country. It also gave the leaders reasons to dislike and distrust each other.
Their management styles are starkly different, as are their backgrounds: Sullivan has worked in academia for nearly 40 years, as a sociologist focusing on labor issues and as an administrator at the universities of Texas and Michigan. Dragas, who earned two degrees from U-Va. in the 1980s, runs her family’s Virginia Beach-based development and building company.
Both have said they want U-Va. to prosper academically and financially, but the two leaders disagree over how best to make that happen.
‘Healthy, robust discussions’
Sullivan and Dragas were provided copies of e-mails obtained by The Post, and neither disputed their authenticity. The university declined to release drafts of the president’s goals and Dragas’s additions, saying that they are “confidential personnel records” exempt from the state’s open-
Sullivan declined to comment. Dragas did not dispute in an interview Thursday that there is tension between her and the president, and she said that it is important for boards and presidents to have “healthy, robust discussions.” Dragas said that asking questions about how taxpayer and student dollars are spent is not always popular.
“U-Va. is a public institution. It’s not an academic playground,” Dragas said, “and we have to make some difficult decisions.”
Since June, the board has had some membership turnover, and it has taken steps to change policies or practices that might have contributed to the crisis. Last summer, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) reappointed Dragas to the board, an action confirmed by a majority of Virginia lawmakers in late January.
In November, the board gave Sullivan a one-year extension on her contract. That contract came with a list of goals that included leading a strategic planning process, recruiting and retaining top faculty, accelerating the implementation of technology, implementing a new budget model and reorganizing the communications office. Sullivan also agreed to quarterly evaluations.
The U-Va. faculty continues to broadly support Sullivan, but a few faculty members have said they are perplexed that she has not launched major initiatives or quickly implemented some of the ideas discussed in the summer. These faculty, who spoke mostly anonymously, did not know whether that was the fault of Sullivan or the board.
“We keep waiting,” said David Leblang, chairman of the U-Va. politics department, in the days before the board last month put its support behind increasing employee compensation after months of Sullivan’s asking it to do so. “We know the president has good ideas about moving the university forward. . . . We see that every day, but we don’t see the board get behind those ideas.”
In November, Sullivan created a list of goals for herself for this academic year and sent it to the three board members on the evaluation committee, which includes Dragas. More than two months later, Dragas sent Sullivan a revision that expanded the goals to 65.