Professionalism/The Dismissal of President Teresa Sullivan

Teresa A. Sullivan 2012.jpg
Teresa A. Sullivan 2012


On June 8th, 2012 at 5 p.m., Board of Visitors (BOV) Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington met with Teresa Sullivan in her Madison Hall office. They informed Sullivan that because of her unsatisfactory performance, they had sufficient support from the BOV to remove her. Sullivan was given a separation agreement and 24 hours to sign it. The alternative would have been to call the decision to an official vote.

On June 9th, Sullivan agreed to sign the separation document.

On June 10th Helen Dragas delivered remarks to the University of Virginia's deans and vice presidents, saying: "The Board feels the need for a bold leader who can help develop, articulate, and implement a concrete and achievable strategic plan to re-elevate the University to its highest potential. We need a leader with a great willingness to adapt the way we deliver our teaching, research, and patient care to the realities of the external environment. We need a leader who is able to passionately convey a vision to our community, and effectively obtain gifts and buy-in towards our collective goals. 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. We do not believe we can even maintain our current standard under a model of incremental, marginal change." [1]

Sullivan spoke at the Mount Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville before her resignation email was sent.[2]


On June 10th, the university community was notified of Sullivan's resignation as the President of the University of Virginia via an email written by Dragas. In that email, she quoted Sullivan: “Although the board and I have a philosophical difference of opinion, I will always treasure having had the opportunity to work with so many gifted faculty and staff, talented students, and loyal alumni. I am also grateful for the privilege to have worked with our extraordinary vice presidents and deans.”[3]

Later on June 10th, Dragas spoke at a press conference where Sullivan's resignation was accepted. She cited "philosophical differences" as the reason for Sullivan's abrupt departure.[4]

Aftermath and ReinstatementEdit

On June 11, the university community began to respond to the ouster. Many emails sent that day remarked on the suddenness of the decision, but the first true expression of shock came from the Faculty Senate, led by George Cohen. He wrote "We are blindsided by this decision." and "We find the Board's statement inadequate and unsatisfactory."[5]

On the 12th, the College of Arts and Sciences program chairs and department heads released a similar statement, asking for clarification of the BOV decision. That same day, the Richmond Times Dispatch revealed a leaked email from the chair of the Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees, Peter Kiernan. In that email, Kiernan admitted to collaborating with a number of "important alumni" and Helen Dragas to plan Sullivan's replacement, a move made necessary by her lack of "strategic dynamism."[6] Kiernan later resigned.

On the 13th, a Facebook group supporting Sullivan was formed, and eventually garnered over 13,000 likes.[7] The same day, a petition to the BOV for the reinstatement Sullivan was opened, eventually gaining over 5,200 signatures.[8]

On the 14th, Helen Dragas issued a response to faculty calls for greater transparency, saying: "Consistent with sound employment practices, it is the policy of the Board to keep confidential matters of disagreement and those relating to evaluation of progress against mutually agreed upon goals." Additionally, Provost John Simon and COO Michael Strine sent out a joint statement calling the BOV decision "resolute and authoritative."

Over the next few days, the Faculty Senate and College of Arts and Sciences declared lack of confidence in the BOV, and the Student Council, Honor Council, Provost Employee Communication Council, American Association of University Professors, and various alumni all expressed concern over the apparent lack of transparency in the BOV's decision.

In the following week, there is an outpouring of support for the reinstatement of Sullivan, including multiple large-scale demonstrations on the lawn. Thousands of letters of protest from alumni were delivered to the BOV office at the Rotunda. Computer Science professor William Wulf resigned in protest of the ouster, and Vice Rector Mark Kington resigned.

This all culminated on June 26th, when the BOV voted to reinstate Sullivan as President of the University of Virginia.[9]

On June 30th, Governor Bob McDonnell made six appointments to the BOV, including the reinstatement of Helen Dragas, despite calls to replace her. Explaining this move, he said, "Dragas' serious critique of the challenges facing the university is a voice that must be heard, and can help in ensuring U.Va. remains one of the world's foremost institutions of higher learning."[10] After this was announced, both Dragas and Sullivan released statements pledging to diligently pursue cooperation for the benefit of all.


The Bandwagon Effect

By Bandwagon Effect, people adopt beliefs or trends faster when others have already adopted them regardless of the underlying evidence. It was originally a political term referring to the tendency of voters to support the largest or most successful campaign.[11] Throughout Sullivan’s dismissal The reasons for dismissal and underlying events were left ambiguous to the public, making the media the main information source for the public. The media used language that sided against the BOV publishing statements such as “A popular University of Virginia president is forced to resign because board members thought she wasn't working quickly enough...”, and called the event an "ouster."[12][13] Students, faculty and the Charlottesville community sided against the BOV as well, holding protests and forming petitions in support of President Sullivan. It is possible the media had an influence on public opinion and induced bandwagoning.

A study conducted in Quebec took participants and surveyed them three times on two different issues in society. The second time the participants were surveyed, the researchers conveyed outside public opinion to some, to see if the participants’ opinions would change. A statistically significant amount of participants were influenced by public opinion indicating bandwagon effect.[11]

Besides mass media, social media was buzzing with information about Sullivan’s dismissal. Several blogs and forums were created so people could post their opinions, and concerns as well as other news sources for people to read. Facebook groups were formed in support of Sullivan and petitions were shared to advocate for reinstatement. On Twitter, #UVa and #Sullivan were among the top trends.[14] Like mass media, social media can lead to bandwagoning.

A study used a social news website where users could vote and comment on posted articles to investigate social influence on user’s behavior. Comments were randomly “up-voted”, similar to a “like” on Facebook or use of a hashtag on twitter. Results showed that the comments and articles chosen to randomly “up-vote” collected more of a user following.[15]

Ring of Gyges

The Ring of Gyges is a magical ring that grants anonymity to the wearer. Glaucon is a character in The Republic, a book written by Plato, and argues that people only act morally to maintain a just reputation in society. However, if their identity were hidden, they would no longer have a reason to act just.[16]

Throughout the dismissal, the BOV took precautions to keep anonymity. They cited an “overwhelming consensus” on the decision to remove President Sullivan, however besides Helen Dragas, few names of Board members were in the media.[17] Details of meetings were ambiguous to the public. Even when the board agreed to hear a response from Sullivan, they insisted the meeting happen behind closed doors. Soon after criticism of the BOV and Helen Dragas ensued from the public, reinstatement was granted.[18] The public brought to light the unjust actions taking place, and removed anonymity from the BOV.


  11. a b Nadeau, R., Cloutier, E., & Guay, J.-H. (1993). New Evidence about the Existence of a Bandwagon Effect in the Opinion Formation Process. International Political Science Review / Revue Internationale de Science Politique, 14(2), 203–213.
  12. Should Colleges Be Run Like Businesses? (n.d.). Retrieved May 3, 2015, from
  13. UVa president’s ouster centers on disagreement in pace of change | InsideHigherEd. (n.d.). Retrieved May 3, 2015, from
  14. How Social Media Helped Change University History. (n.d.). Retrieved May 2, 2015, from
  15. Muchnik, L., Aral, S., & Taylor, S. J. (2013). Social Influence Bias: A Randomized Experiment. Science, 341(6146), 647–651.
  16. Plato. (360AD). The Republic (Vol. Book II).
  17. Pérez-peña, R. (2012, June 18). University of Virginia Board Considers Sullivan Replacement. The New York Times. Retrieved from
  18. Vise, D. de, & Kumar, A. (2012, June 17). U-Va. board leaders wanted President Teresa Sullivan to make cuts. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

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