Rector reaction: Boiling point or dénouement?

Just when you think the bad publicity that has plagued UVA since the "unpleasantness" of last summer couldn't possibly continue, up pops a front page story in the Washington Post exposing lingering tensions between between UVA Rector Helen Dragas and UVA President Teresa Sullivan that recently reached a "boiling point."

According to documents and emails obtained by the Post, shortly after Dragas was reappointed to the Board of Visitors, the Rector sent Sullivan a whopping list of 65 goals to reach before the semester was out. Incensed, Sullivan fired off an email to the Board saying the goals were "almost impossible to achieve" and that she "did not care to be set up to fail."

The story [At U-Va., tensions persist between Sullivan and Dragas] quickly rekindled the outrage that many still feel for the unceremonious way Sullivan was treated last summer, as Dragas unsuccessfully attempted to remove her from office. Suzie McCarthy, the grad student who mobilized thousands of people to push for Sullivan's reinstatement, took the gloves off in a Facebook post, saying "Okay I'm done playing nice and I'm finished being diplomatic…Dragas you have messed with me for the last freakin' time."

On March 5, the UVA Faculty Senate issued a statement condemning Dragas's actions:

"Rector Dragas's reported conduct does not embody the spirit of reconciliation and cooperation that we expected to follow the reinstatement of President Sullivan," the statement reads. "Unfortunately, it raises the very concerns about minority control that led UVA's accrediting agency to put us on warning last fall, and suggests that Rector Dragas has not yet learned the governance lessons from last summer's crisis.  This kind of behavior must end."

"Is anyone surprised?" asks Andy Thomson, a UVA-based psychiatrist who has followed the troublesome relationship between the the two women. "Given the events of last year and then Dragas' reappointment, how could anyone think this would turn into a workable relationship that would benefit the University?"

Public relations, it would appear, is not Rector Dragas's strong suit.

UVA Board member William H. Goodwin Jr. also took some heat for comments he made to the Post. Goodwin said the Post was making a "mountain of out of a mole hill," that there was no tension between the Board and Sullivan, and that the only deterrent to the smooth governance of the University was the Freedom of Information Act. The statements, of course, outraged those who believe that a lack of transparency has been the problem all a long.

But Goodwin may have a point.

According to UVA political science professor Larry Sabato, a vocal critic of the attempted ouster last summer, the Post piece was a "slice-of-life" that reported conditions on the Board that existed before its last meeting on February 22.

"That Board meeting changed the dynamics," says Sabato, "and I understand that, almost unanimously, Board members thought 65 goals for the President were about 55 too many.
"It would be a mistake," says Sabato, "to think that all the Board alignments of last June's unpleasantness have persisted."

Sabato suggests that Dragas' authority and influence on the Board may be fading, and that the Board members he knows are "eager to move past the current status quo."

"And that will happen automatically in four short months," he adds, alluding to the end of Dragas' term as rector on June 30. 

Indeed, during the Board's last meeting, Sullivan scored big when a resolution was passed regarding faculty salary increases, which has been one of her top priorities. Last June, Dragas cited declining faculty compensation as a reason for a leadership change.

"Fortunately, the Board of Visitors at its meeting last week approved President Sullivan's proposal to increase faculty salaries, which Rector Dragas reportedly had deleted from her list of goals," yesterday's UVA Faculty Senate Statement read. "The Board also apparently approved a more reasonable set of presidential goals than the ones detailed by Rector Dragas. The Board continues to take steps to improve its internal governance processes. We applaud the Board's efforts and are eager to continue working with the Board in mutual commitment to the University's excellence."

"It's interesting that that was not included in the Rector's missive to the President," says Charlottesville Delegate David Toscano, mentioning faculty raises. He, along with Delegate Steve Landes, opposed Dragas' confirmation. "And it's not surprising," Toscano adds, "that she would continue trying to micromanage the University."

Like Sabato, though, Toscano thinks there is a "lame duck element" to Dragas' role as rector. Citing the faculty salary resolution, Toscano points out that the Board chose to throw its support behind the president.

"The president is on pretty firm ground, I think, and the Board seems generally supportive of her," he says. "I'm an eternal optimist, and I think the president will continue to lay out her vision and move the University forward."

At the Board's last meeting, Sullivan laid out some of that vision.

"We are not trying to move from mediocre to good, or from good to great," Sullivan told Board members at the February 22 meeting. "We are trying to move from great to greater. We have no peer institution to serve as a model for what we want to become, no single peer to which we can affix our aspirations, because our aspiration is to be something unique and greater than any of our peers. Our aspiration is to create a future version of this University that is better, stronger, and more innovative than our current self."

As Sabato and Toscano suggest, despite any personal tensions that may still exist between the president and rector, Dragas's actual authority and ability to sway the Board seems to have been diminished. Still, while her term as rector will end in June, she will be a regular Board member for three more years.

So, can we expect more tension between Dragas and Sullivan? Count on that pesky Freedom of Information Act to find out.


Puzzle me this: Larry Sabato states in part that..."I understand that, almost unanimously, Board members thought 65 goals for the President were about 55 too many."

I believe Larry's statement, and am hopeful that, almost to a person, the BOV appreciated that 65 goals were unrealistic at the very least. For any reasonable, thinking, business-savvy individual on the BOV to think otherwise is folly. [As wise person said “With 65 priorities, you have no priorities.]

Contrast that, however, with Dragas' statement in her response email to Sullivan that the 65 goals that she created “echo multiple voices” on the board.

Dragas’ statement leads this reader to wonder if Dragas once again was purporting to speak for the majority of the BOV…***precisely as she did when she first approached Sullivan in June, willfully and knowingly mis-representing to Sullivan that the majority of the BOV had no confidence in her abilities to lead the University.***

The best predictor of future behavior in adults is past behavior. Dragas demonstrated clearly in June the depths to which she would go in her personal attempt to oust Sullivan sans full approval of the BOV. With these 65 goals, she again approaches Sullivan as though she (Dragas) is merely representing the wishes of the entire BOV.

Clearly, she is not.

Rinse and repeat.

Let's keep it simple: Raise pay & lower expectations & then congratulate ourselves on how progressive we are.

Dragas may indeed be trying to set Sullivan up to fail, and her idea to do that may be not a bad one, but her tactics are again incompetent. She could have set that up with a list of just 5 goals, since Sullivan hasn't shown herself able since June to accomplish even one goal. The recent raises Sullivan announced are only cost of living increases for a lucky few, nothing to get excited about, and certainly nothing that meaningfully advances the stated goal of raising UVA's overall salary rates to those of the best of its peers. Sullivan is making Dragas look like a chump in the PR department, and seems to be using all the right rhetoric to keep the still-underpaid faculty (except for bigwigs like Cohen, who are already fully paid for loyalists) on her side. But so far it's all just hot air being exchanged between the BOV and the President's office -- sort of like North and South Korea blustering at each other. I'll believe something has been done about faculty salaries when I see something more than a minimal percentage increase (which is the best anyone got, this round). For the first few years of the Sullivan era, she didn't want to hear anyone complain about this issue, and the faculty went straight to the BOV with its complaints (which Dragas then exploited in the attempted ouster). Sullivan has deftly parried this in her favor, and the irony of it is bittersweet, given her prior reluctance to engage on it. Not sure what anyone can mean, though, by pretending that there are no other peers we can look to as a model, and suggesting that we must reinvent the wheel of a superior public U -- usually only politicians try to pull that kind of wool over our eyes. Will be fun to see what kind of whackiness Dragas counters with.

"..a superior public U--"

I think that horse has left the barn. Sadly, you are a legend in your own mind and in an ever-dwindling number of rating organizations.

A couple of ratings already have Maryland ahead of Virginia. Imagine the gnashing of teeth in Potomac and other rich Md. 'burbs. The parents could have sent their kid to Maryland and paid in-state Maryland tuition and the kid could have lived at home as well. Overall they could have saved tons of money and their kid could have received a more prestigious degree to boot.

But at least their kid has a ring-side seat on Dragas' really boorish behavior and a lifetime lesson on how not to conduct themselves.

Remove Dragas for complete lack of leadership and unprofessional behavior directed at the President of UVA. Dragas' actions will require accreditation review again.

Professors are growing impatient, and offers from other Universities are flooding our inboxes. Summer is right around the corner. Professors decisions will be made based on the instability of the BoV leadership. Who is in charge?

Dragas has not made a case against President else was Dr. Sullivan's contract extended by one year; with the support of Dragas in the Governor's office?

The accreditation committee will review Dragas' leadership ability (lack thereof).

As for Ms. DraGAS, it is well past time to egg her onward. I doubt she'll dare to show her face on campus very often, perhaps not even at commencement, and one has to keep wondering: why does she insist so vehemently that Hill + Knowlton's ideas are better than any she might come up with herself? I mean, does anyone really want the University to be run by an advertising agency's talented flacks?

I would like to know where Larry Sabato gets his information from closed door sessions of the BOV? A pack of lies for a lame duck president. Sullivan leaves and UVA gets back on track. A mistake from day one.

John "Dubby" Wynne is responsible for Helen Dragas becoming the Rector. When he was the Rector, he engineered the election of Helen to replace him. He wanted to keep the position in the Virginia Beach power club. That makes John "Dubby" Wynne the Second Worst Rector in University history.

Helen Dragas is the Worst Rector in University history.

Let's be honest, any professor who claims to make his or her decision about whether to accept an offer from another university based on who is sitting on the BOV is grossly simplifiying their decision, if not outright lying. Professors, no matter where they are employed, make these decisions based more on how the bidding war between the home university and the rival shakes out, and on more mundane quality of life factors, not on who is in charge at the highest levels of management. Most professors have no or only very rare contact with BOV members, and are unlikely to even get their names known by the President. But what they re able to weigh in their career choices are the age-old factors of salary, cost of living in the university's area, quality of schools, weather, cultural and recreational opportunities, availability of top quality health care, relative levels of pyschosis of other faculty in host department, quality of grad student programs, etc. C'mon, if the occupier of the top office were the deciding factor, UVa would have begun bleeding top faculty the moment McDonnell was sworn in as Governor. And if UVa prof gets a lucrative offer from a "better" school and the life factors weigh in the balance toward a decision to leap. leap they will, even if Dragas gets run out of town on a rail.

I would like to know who Sabato got his information from about the 55 goals too many. Sullivan? Another victim based proclamation? Wow, she is really showing how over her head she is. And, if you check your facts, you can retrieve the information that the Board of Visitors have fully admitted that the ouster of Sullivan was an agreement of a "super-majority". Yep, it's in print, folks. And, now she is slowly, but surely showing us all why. And no, I do not work for a PR firm. Hardly.

Waiting Wallet writes, " Professors, no matter where they are employed, make these decisions based more on how the bidding war between the home university and the rival shakes out, and on more mundane quality of life factors, not on who is in charge at the highest levels of management. "

I think it is safe to say that any senior professor, looking for a home for his research enterprise, will be very wary of hooking up with a university with a condo-developer like Dragas constantly meddling and throwing things into turmoil. What WW says is probably true for a beginning assistant professor job.

Actually, Will, the bigger threat to a senior professor's research enterprise is not the meddling a board might try with its underling president's office, but rather the meddling the underling president's office might conduct with he super-underling schools and departments, since it's the president's office that controls the money that flows down to schools and departments. From what I've heard, this president and her deputies have maintained a somewhat tight grasp on the purse strings (no loosening since Casteen and Garson and Sandridge left), and have been the subject of claims of micromanagement just like the BOV members that Dragas currently speaks for and who the next rector will also have to speak for. Somehow, one of the battling camps got labeled as being on the side of transparency and faculty-governance while the other side got tagged as an enemy, but I don't see how either one is better or worse than the other, based on recent events.