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U.Va.'s Sullivan Reinstated

Process and decision to serve as lessons for other institutions
University Business, July/August 2012
Teresa A. Sullivan, forced to resign as president from U.Va. on June 10, was reinstated June 26.
Teresa A. Sullivan, forced to resign as president from U.Va. on June 10, was reinstated June 26.

In the two weeks between University of Virginia board members controversially asking Teresa A. Sullivan to resign her position of president on June 10 and her reinstatement on June 26, the university faced donors pulling out and an outpouring of public support for Sullivan.

Sullivan, who began her term on Aug. 1, 2010 after she was unanimously elected by the Board of Visitors in January of that year, was fired on June 10 for reasons that have largely not been made public.

“While many believe that the past two weeks have threatened our great institution, I believe that we have been strengthened by the experience,” Sullivan said in a statement. “It has, in fact, propelled our academic community to a new place and made it ready to face a quickened pace of change.”

Moving forward will require a prolonged period of healing, predicts John Thornburgh, senior vice president and director of the higher education practice at Witt/Kieffer, an executive search firm with a focus on higher education and non-profit organizations.

“This has been a highly unusual if not totally unique chapter in the ever growing book of higher education leadership transitions,” he says.  “I think it produced lessons that other universities should be heeding carefully.”

For example, Thornburgh believes a “fundamental disconnect in the search process” was involved during Sullivan’s hiring. “My sense from reading and looking at the board’s rationale for taking action to remove her initially is that they wanted a president who was going to be much more aggressive in moving the university into new initiatives and strategies. The online area was a prominent expectation, and when they viewed that she wasn’t going to deliver on that, they took the action to terminate her.”

He believes the lesson learned is that boards need to explicitly communicate about the direction they want the university to move in—and not hire a candidate without the skills to deliver on that.

As far as donors are concerned, the reinstatement seems to have rubbed them the right way, though it’s unclear if there’s an association. The day after the announcement, U.Va. received commitments for two anonymous $1 million gifts for AccessUVa and the College of Arts & Sciences. Another $500,000 gift was made to the College of Arts & Sciences, and more than $200,000 in other gifts were contributed.

“It’s always very tempting to lend an extra ear to donors who are consistently generous and who write big checks and who sometimes expect their words to be given extra weight,” says Thornburgh. “I don’t know if that’s the case here, but it’s an area that boards and presidents have to be careful about because there should rarely be any quid pro quos associated with any contributions.”