By Sabrina Schaeffer, AP
Hundreds gather in front of the University of Virginia rotunda Wednesday for a silent vigil in support of ousted President Teresa Sullivan.
By Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
The nation's public flagship universities in recent months have seen a remarkable exodus of presidents - some by choice, most not - revealing a sometimes fractious relationship between campus leaders and the governing boards they answer to.
Since November, presidents of Oregon State, Pennsylvania State and Louisiana State universities have been fired. At the University of Illinois, two presidents have resigned under fire within the last three years. Last June, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's chancellor voluntarily stepped down after a controversial proposal failed that would have given her campus more autonomy.
This month, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan announced she would step down in August, after serving just 22 months. But as the circumstances that led to Sullivan's resignation began to unfold publicly, a groundswell of support from students, faculty and alumni has revived the possibility that she will keep her job. A vote by the school's Board of Visitors scheduled for Tuesday will determine her fate.
"This is a time of great strain on public institutions," says Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, a non-profit umbrella group for colleges and universities. "On the one hand we're pushing (universities) to take more students in, to do a better job with them. At the very same time we are withdrawing resources. ... It's easy for the major constituencies on campus to get cranky."
Much of the controversy at Virginia revolves around the governing board's handling of Sullivan's forced resignation, which was done without input from the university community. Board of Visitors rector Helen Dragas, a real estate developer, apologized Thursday in a statement for creating "pain, anger and confusion," but also stressed that a "deliberate and strategic approach, not an incremental one" is needed to meet a number of challenges, such as diversifying funding streams and improving educational quality.
On Friday, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell warned that if the board does not make a "clear, detailed and unified statement on the future leadership of the university" on Tuesday, he will "ask for the resignation of the entire board on Wednesday."
University of Kentucky professor John Thelin, author of A History of American Higher Education, says the University of Virginia controversy raises anew his concerns about whether boards of trustees at public universities, who typically are political appointees and often come from the corporate world, should be making decisions about a system whose inner workings they may not grasp.
"We give so much ultimate power to our boards of trustees, but we have no assurance that they really know the enterprise they're overseeing," he says.
University of Virginia business school dean Carl Zeithaml, who had been tapped to be interim president, but stepped aside pending Tuesday's vote, said Friday the board might be more effective with fewer political appointees and more experts in relevant fields. He also urged a larger role for faculty and staff. "We've got a teachable moment," he said, adding that UVA could be a model that could lead us not only out of our current predicament but that other universities could use."