why was teresa sullivan asked to resign?

The big news in academic circles recently is the resignation of Teresa Sullivan as the president of the University of Virginia. I’ve been slow to catch on to the importance of this topic and have to admit that I don’t understand the complex politics motivating this move. What compelled the Board of Visitors to ask for her resignation?

The story I’ve heard from a number of news sources is that certain members of the board, and clearly not all since the move was initiated without a vote from the full board, were unhappy with Sullivan’s “incremental” pace in creating change to the institution. But what changes did they want? Based on the emails of board members involved in the ouster, one of the topics that keeps coming up is online education. But that can’t be the real or entire reason for worrying about Sullivan’s strategy.  Every university in the country is aware of the potential that online education offers, but none of the elite institutions have yet figured out how it’s going to play out in the long run. Some universities are experimenting with online offerings, but it’s still at a developmental stage.

Others have speculated that the reason was that the Board wanted to see the university run like a business, a vision that Sullivan did not share. But if you read a strategic memo issued by Sullivan in May, you can see that she was actively engaged with the university’s budget situation. She was making efforts to control costs and optimize revenue streams. As you’d expect from any competent president, as it appears she was, Sullivan was keenly aware of the operational needs of the university.

Sullivan’s own public statement about the resignation suggests that the board was unhappy with her style of leadership. They wanted her to run the university in a more autocratic style, a style she did not believe was conducive to good university governance : “Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work.”  Taking this statement as a signal of the disagreement between the two parties, the board probably wanted Sullivan to make some moves that would have been unpopular with some of the faculty and Sullivan was unwilling to make those decisions without some faculty support. I’d like to know more about what those unpopular actions were.

What am I missing here?  I’d appreciate it if anyone else who is much better informed about the context could shed some light.

Written by brayden king

June 20, 2012 at 3:39 pm

5 Responses

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  1. I don’t have a lot of light to shed, but I’ll offer up two additional links for consideration. A historian developed a theory based on the idea that Goldman Sach’s Educational Management Corporation was pressuring UVA to privatize. She suggests that Sullivan may have resisted such efforts which led to her forced resignation. She does has some interesting evidence that fits with some of the emails push for more online education.

    Also, due to the scandal a U VA’s University Professor Bill Wulf is resigning (former president of the National Academy of Engineering). His letter:



    June 20, 2012 at 3:57 pm

  2. The Board has not specified the exact nature of the “philosophical differences” they cited as the reason for Sullivan’s ouster. The explanations you cited (wanting to push further with online education, more drastic cuts to arts and sciences, and running the university more like a corporation) seem to be the main ones coming up in the news media. This seems to be one of the best summaries so far: Also, many students and faculty members have been speaking out about the situation, for example:



    June 20, 2012 at 4:23 pm

  3. As someone whose published on the subject of university presidents and their politics, let me add a few very general comments:

    – Political appointees to boards of trustees often have unrealistic views of how college work in real life. University presidents are usually life long academics, while many trustees are on the board because they happened to be married to an influential person or they are a political donor to the governor.

    – Over the last thirty years or so, as you well know, there’s been a drift within the Republican party. As late as the early 1960s, Republican politicians viewed the university in its present form as consistent with their view of governing – training elites, producing science & economic growth. Now, Republican voters and leaders tend to be very hostile toward universities because they don’t look like profit making business. There is also hostility because they have to give money to people who won’t vote for them. This has lead to two changes in Trustee-adminsitration relations.

    First, some Trustees are out to “stick it” to out of touch academics. You’ll see this pop- up from time to time when trustees, in Colorado for example, propose rules to impose certain political ideas within their campuses. A number of Trustees (the Regents) in California spent many years fighting over affirmative action in admissions.

    Second, many Trustees no longer view cross-subsidy as the dominant form of academic organization. In this model, you accept that ancient Greek is a money loser and leave it at that. You shield the production of knowledge and teaching from market forces as much as you can. Now, every academic unit has to show profitability in some way.

    – Take this general trend and then add into the mix the recent partisan shift in American and state politics. Earlier generations of Trustees may have disagreed with administrators and just let the chips fall where they may. Now, Trustees may be more likely to jettison bargaining and compromise as a feature of academic governance. You see this is in a lot of state governments, like Wisconsin or Michigan, where Republican legislatures – who already have the majority – won’t let the other party exercise their procedural rights.



    June 20, 2012 at 4:36 pm

  4. […] asked about the firing of Teresa Sullivan, the former president of the University of Virginia. Brayden wondered if it was about an argument about the pace of change at Virignia. I thought it was about the […]


  5. Fabiorojas, I’d love to see the evidence that Republicans are hostile to universities because they don’t look like profit making business. At best, it’s an I’ll-informed accusation.

    Regardless, the lack of transparency from UVA is unconscionable. We really don’t know what the issue is. And that cannot be tolerated from a public institution.

    But this is the first of many such battles. The old financial model of the university is unsustainable. Costs continue to rise well ahead of inflation, and with downward pressure in state and federal government spending, and a growing discomfort with student debt, there is a legitimate argument that there is a bubble in education. Online education is a threat, but only because traditional education has gotten so expensive. I don’t see how the traditional model survives, even with online offerings, if the financial disparity is not brought back in line. Universities are well advised to get ahead off this before the bubble pops.



    July 6, 2012 at 1:14 pm

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