By Kathryn Watson | Virginia Statehouse News
ALEXANDRIA — The vice rector of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors has resigned, less than 12 hours after Carl Zeithaml was named interim president.
Critics say the governing group — and particularly Rector Helen Dragas — has not only failed to lift the veil of transparency, but more effectively has dropped a smeared opaque curtain, behind which lurks a latticework of secrecy and evasion.
The General Assembly has lately taken notice.
One House delegate, Joseph Morrissey, D-Richmond and a UVA alum, is calling for an investigation, citing a snippet of Virginia statute regarding higher education that says the rector and board are “at all times subject to the control of the General Assembly.”
“The taxpayers of Virginia, who support the university, deserve answers, not more excuses,” Morrissey said in a Tuesday news release. ”This is not a complicated matter.”
Early Tuesday, the board announced Zeithaml, dean of the institution’s McIntire School of Commerce, would replace Teresa Sullivan, who resigned under pressure June 10.
That much is known. What’s not known — or so far even discernible — specific reasons for his selection, the process by which he was selected, or exactly what led to Sullivan’s dismissal.
Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau on June 11 submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request, but so far has received only Sullivan’s initial employment contract.
Sullivan, who has earned an annual base salary of $485,000, according to her initial contract, resigned less than two years into her tenure as president. The move makes Sullivan the shortest-serving president in UVA history.
Per her contract, Sullivan could continue as a tenured professor, a capacity in which she served before taking the president’s job. She has not said whether she plans to stay.
“I am proud of my service here, and I thank you for the opportunity,” Sullivan said in a letter read by a colleague.
The now infamous BOV meeting began at 3:15 p.m. Monday and continued until 2:40 a.m. Tuesday, according to a BOV clerk.
University spokeswoman Carol Wood refused to provide email communication between the president and McDonnell’s office, which, according to Virginia Code, does not have to be disclosed.
Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau is still waiting for:
- A copy of Sullivan’s severance package.
- Copies of any and all email communication between Sullivan’s office and members of the visiting board from Sept. 1, 2011 and June 11.
- Expense reports for Sullivan’s office between Jan. 1, 2012, and June 11.
Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau also is asking for copies of all emails among the Board of Visitors for the month leading up to the June 10 resignation announcement.
Zeithaml becomes president Aug. 16, the day after Sullivan officially leaves. He comes with a history of business experience, an area in which Sullivan, a sociologist, fell short, says Dragas.
Zeithaml joined the UVA business school in 1997, but before that spent 11 years as a business faculty member in the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Dragas has cited a need for increased fundraising and an emphasis on higher faculty compensation, among other things.
“The Board believes this environment calls for a much faster pace of change in administrative structure, in governance, in financial resource development and in resource prioritization and allocation,” Dragas said in her June 10 explanation to vice presidents and deans regarding the decision to have Sullivan resign. “We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change. The world is simply moving too fast.”
Following the marathon BOV meeting Monday and Tuesday, Dragas called Zeithaml, “the perfect choice” for the interim post.
Dragas, because of Sullivan’s dismissal, has been a target of criticism.
On Monday she offered her “sincere regret for the pain, anger and confusion they have caused among many in our U.Va. family.”
Dragas’ critics vary from newspaper editorial writers to past UVA presidents, who have pounced on the board for reportedly telling Sullivan of their decision just two days before announcing it publicly in a brief statement and failing to give substantiated reasons for ousting a president most saw as good for the school.
The critics are many, speaking in loud, often vitriolic tones.
The Richmond-Times Dispatch on Tuesday called the past week-and-a-half a “fiasco” that “cries out for intervention.”
Former UVA president Robert O’Neill on Monday called the board’s actions “unprecedented” and marked by a “total lack of transparency.”
The UVA Faculty Senate — not to mention outraged students and university outsiders via Twitter — have pressured Dragas to resign.
“I am embarrassed and ashamed of how #Dragas and her minions have damaged by beloved #UVA,” wrote one tweeter. “You are a disgrace. Resign now.”
Twitter in many ways defined the conversation, allowing people to express their opinions over the board’s moves and to spread major announcements, such Kington’s resignation.
Dragas, whose second term is up in July, was originally appointed by then-Gov. Tim Kaine in 2008. Only the sitting governor — McDonnell — has the power to release her from the board, according to Virginia Code. McDonnell could, however, simply choose not to reappoint her.
McDonnell, essentially the only official to express support for Dragas last week, offered his first sign of displeasure with the board’s actions during a media conference call Tuesday. The governor has yet to respond to Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau’s questions, which were submitted Monday morning.
“The board … made the decision that they felt were in the best long-term interest of the university,’’ McDonnell said, according to the Washington Post. “I would have liked to see things happen a little differently — a little more promptly, a little bit more communication with people in the community so there was a much clearer understanding about the reasons for their decision.’’
O’Neill told Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau: “Longer term, I think the critical issue is to ensure that there is broader — at least as broad consultation — in the search for a successor president as there was in the … entirely admirable search that brought Terry Sullivan to Charlottesville.”
To join the FOIA request email firstname.lastname@example.org.