If Tuesday’s meeting of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors – at which the board will reconsider the forced resignation of President Teresa Sullivan and likely the strategic direction of the university – was already looking like an epic showdown, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell just made it a cage match.
Fifteen visitors will enter the Rotunda. One consensus will emerge. Or else.
In a letter to the Board of Visitors on Friday afternoon, McDonnell called on the board to come to a unified decision about the future of leadership at the university and gave board members an ultimatum. “Let me be absolutely clear: I want final action by the board on Tuesday. If you fail to do so, I will ask for the resignation of the entire board on Wednesday. Regardless of your decision, I expect you to make a clear, detailed and unified statement on the future leadership of the university.”
Given what seems to be deep division among board members about the university’s leadership, the governor’s demand for finality and accord could make for a contentious and protracted meeting Tuesday.
Helen E. Dragas, the rector, or chair, of the board, and the board member most closely associated with the effort to force Sullivan’s resignation, also issued a statement Friday calling for finality from the board’s meeting Tuesday. While Dragas' statement didn't criticize Sullivan, it also did not suggest a change of heart on the rector's part.
In his letter to the board, McDonnell, who so far has refrained from wading into the controversy that has consumed the university and higher education world for two weeks, criticized how the board handled the president’s ouster, saying the process lacked transparency.
“A vote to remove the president requiring two-thirds approval of the board was not taken, and the multiple board meetings and the ensuing predictable press frenzy have created great uncertainty imperiling the university's ability to move forward,” he said in an accompanying statement.
“The execution and communication of some of the decisions over the past 12 days has confused and angered people in the larger university community,” the governor wrote in the letter. “It is difficult for the public to fully understand the potential merits of a decision, when a lack of transparency exists, and a rationale for change is not immediately provided.”
McDonnell said he would refrain from dictating what the board should decide, saying it would undermine the relationship between his office and the public universities in the state.
At this point, a decision not to reinstate Sullivan would be highly controversial unless the board provides the clear and compelling rationale that many say has been lacking thus far. Most of the major voices on campus, including the Faculty Senate, the majority of the deans, the head of the university’s various fund-raising foundations, and various student and alumni groups, have called for Sullivan to be reinstated.
On Friday, Carl Zeithaml, dean of the university's McIntire School of Commerce, whom the board selected earlier this week to serve as interim president starting Aug. 16, said he was "suspending any further negotiations with the board" regarding his status as interim president, as well as his activities associated with the interim role, until the board clarifies Sullivan's status.