Apparently billionaire alumni don’t like it when sociologists who specialize in “class dynamics and the role of debt in society” become university presidents… (U-M’s former Provost Theresa Sullivan forced to resign as President of UVA)

About two years ago, the University of Michigan lost its Provost, Theresa Sullivan, to the University of Virginia. People that I know at the University weren’t happy to see her leave, as she was extremely popular among faculty, but everyone seemed to be happy for her, as she was leaving to become the first female president of an incredibly prestigious university. Unfortunately, it would seem that things haven’t turned out that well for Sullivan, who offered her resignation a few days ago, at the behest of the UVA board. University Rector, Helen Dragas, in a letter to the University community, said that Sullivan’s resignation letter cited “philosophical differences” on how the University was to be run. Judging from the faculty and student protests which have arisen over the past several days, it would appear as though many blame the UVA Board. In particular, it would seem that much of the blame has fallen on former Goldman Sacs partner, Peter Kiernan, who, until recently, was on the board of UVA’s Darden School of Business. The following comes from UVA professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, who wrote about Sullivan’s dismissal for Slate.

…The events at UVA raise important questions about the future of higher education, the soul of the academic project, and the way we fund important public services.

Kiernan, who earned his MBA at Darden and sent his children to the university, has been a longtime and generous supporter of both the business school and the College of Arts and Sciences, where I work as a professor. Earlier this year he published a book called — I am not making this up — “Becoming China’s Bitch.” It purports to guide America through its thorniest problems, from incarceration to education to foreign policy. The spectacle of a rich man telling us how to fix our country was irresistible to the New York Times, which ran a glowing profile of Kiernan and his book on Feb. 29.

At some point in recent American history, we started assuming that if people are rich enough, they must be experts in all things. That’s why we trust Mark Zuckerberg to save Newark schools and Bill Gates to rid the world of malaria. Expertise is so 20th century.

Kiernan played a strange and as-yet-unclear role in the ousting of Sullivan over last weekend. Here is the story of how it unfolded and how we came to know of Kiernan’s role in the matter.

Sunday morning my phones started ringing and my email box started swelling. The rector (what we in Virginia call the chairperson) of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors (what most states call a Board of Regents) had written an email to the entire university community announcing that Sullivan had resigned.

I can’t begin to describe the level of shock this generated among alumni, students, and faculty. Suffice it to say that everyone—every dean, every professor, every student, and every staff member at the university—was surprised. Even Sullivan did not have a clue that this was coming down until the Friday before the Sunday announcement. I can describe two things: the affection and respect that the university community had for president Sullivan in her two short years in office; and the bizarre turn of events that led to her forced resignation.

Sullivan is an esteemed sociologist who specialized in class dynamics and the role of debt in society. The author or co-author of six books, she spent most of her career rising through the ranks at the University of Texas, where she served as dean of the graduate school while I was working toward my Ph.D. in the late 1990s. She was known around Texas as a straightforward, competent, and gregarious leader. She carried that reputation from Texas to the University of Michigan, the premier public research university in the world, where she served as the chief academic officer, or provost, for four years.

When the University of Virginia sought a president to lift it from the ranks of an outstanding undergraduate school to a research powerhouse, while retaining its commitment to students and the enlightenment Jeffersonian traditions on which it was founded, the board selected Sullivan in 2010. She became the first woman to serve as president of UVA, a place she could not have attended as an undergraduate in the 1960s because it was all-male at the time.

The first year of Sullivan’s tenure involved hiring her own staff, provost, and administrative vice president. In her second year she had her team and set about reforming and streamlining the budget system, a process that promised to save money and clarify how money flows from one part of the university to another. This was her top priority. It was also the Board of Visitor’s top priority—at least at the time she was hired. Sullivan was rare among university presidents in that she managed to get every segment of the diverse community and varied stakeholders to buy in to her vision and plan. Everyone bought in, that is, except for a handful of very, very rich people, some of whom happen to be political appointees to the Board of Visitors.

We know from the email Kiernan inadvertently (stupid “reply all” button!) sent to a large group of Darden School supporters that he had plotted to convince many members of the board that Sullivan should go. The Sunday we all found out Sullivan had been forced out, Kiernan wrote in the email, “Several weeks ago I was contacted by two important Virginia alums about working with [Board rector] Helen Dragas on this project, particularly from the standpoint of the search process and the strategic dynamism effort.” Kiernan assured his readers that Sullivan was a very nice person whom he respected. And he reassured them that sharp, trustworthy people were handling the transition process: “And you should be comforted by the fact that both the Rector and Vice Rector, Helen Dragas and Mark Kington are Darden alums,” Kiernan wrote. “Trust me, Helen has things well in hand.”

In her initial letter to the university community and again in a statement later that Sunday, Dragas declined to offer any reason for dismissing Sullivan. One thing we have learned from watching universities in the past year is this: When a university president fails to report a pedophile football coach, it’s a good reason to fire him. But no one, including Dragas has ever even suggested that Sullivan had failed the university financially, ethically, or morally.

“The Board believes that in the rapidly changing and highly pressurized external environment in both health care and in academia, the University needs to remain at the forefront of change,” Dragas wrote in her initial email announcement. I have no idea what that means or why it pertains to Sullivan’s dismissal. I guess it means that stuff is changing. So the university must change. Firing a president is change.

On Monday Dragas, sensing that the university community might want some explanation for such a radical act, sent out a second message: “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. The world is simply moving too fast.”

OK, then. It’s all about pace. I suppose this means the board will appoint a new president every two years. Or maybe more frequently, because that’s the only way to keep up with the pace of change…

Essentially, the UVA Board of Visitors decided that they needed a CEO more than they needed a President. They needed someone who could keep their eye on quarterly profits, rather than on the institution’s long term goals. Sullivan, it would seem, according to many on the Board, was not that person. Sullivan, in her defense, had the following to say.

…I have been described as an incrementalist. It is true. Sweeping action may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership, but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear. There has been substantial change on Grounds in the past two years, and this change is laying the groundwork for greater change. But it has all been carefully planned and executed in collaboration with Vice Presidents and Deans and representatives of the faculty. This is the best, most constructive, most long lasting, and beneficial way to change a university. Until the last ten days, the change at UVA has not been disruptive change, and it has not been high-risk change.

Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university. Sustained change with buy-in does work. UVA is one of the world’s greatest universities.

Being an incrementalist does not mean that I lack vision. My vision was clearly outlined in my strategic vision statement. It encompasses the thoughts developed by me and my team as to what UVA can become in the 21st century and parts of it were incorporated into the budget narrative that you adopted last month…

So, I think this begs the question – What is higher ed in America? Is it a profit-driven business, or is it primarily about the discovery of knowledge, and the imparting of wisdom to our next generation?

Now I’m going to go back into the archives and see where it was that I used the “corporatization of higher education” tag before. (I suspect that I’ll be using it a lot more in the future.)

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  1. Posted June 18, 2012 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    It would seem that a financial backer of the University, by the name of Paul Tudor Jones, may have put the hit out on Sullivan.

    The following is from The Hook.

    Shouts of “UVA, UVA” went up when recently ousted President Teresa Sullivan appeared before the marble steps of the Rotunda.

    An estimated crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 greeted the Board of Visitors today at its meeting to name an interim president. Board members had to endure a phalanx of people carrying signs that objected to their firing of Sullivan.

    In contrast, Sullivan got an outpouring of emotion and enthusiasm from the assembled multitude.

    Rector Helen Dragas, whom many see as the engineer of the current coup debacle, was 17 to 18 minutes late to the 3pm meeting. At 3:16pm a reporter asked UVA spokeswoman Carol Wood where the rector was. “I don’t know,” responded Wood.

    When Dragas finally showed up, she read a statement that many of those standing outside the Rotunda perhaps hoped would be her resignation from the board. Instead, they got defiance, as Dragas expressed regret for the turmoil of the week but not the ouster.

    “We recognize that, while genuinely well-intended to protect the dignity of all parties, our actions too readily lent themselves to perceptions of being opaque and not in keeping with the honored traditions of this University,” said Dragas.

    “This is all to say that there is not one single person on earth whose interests we would ever put above those of the thousands of stakeholders entrusted to our care,” she read. “Not one President, not one administrator, not one faculty member, and certainly not one donor.”

    As reported in the Hook, billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones was one of two “important alums” who’d been working with Dragas on ousting Sullivan– something sources say was linked to a potential nine-figure-donation from Jones. That behind-the-scenes and under-the-radar maneuvering was first revealed in a letter sent by former Darden Foundation chair Peter Kiernan, who has resigned amid the uproar…

  2. Thom Elliott
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    Well of course Mark, palm greasing and pocket lining is the only catagorical imperative of today. If you need something amoral and nihilistic done, just pay off the nearest offical with a ‘donation’, if it is sufficently large, anyone in the US will do any amoral, vicious, and self destructive thing you want them to do. Most would murder a complete stranger for the right amount, it is no surprise that people are bought and sold in the Ge-stell (look it up). Human beings in modernity are nothing but resource, a standing stockpile like coal, or cellulose, to be ordered and utilized however the capitalist sees fit. People have ceased to be people long ago, people are only workers now.

  3. anonymous
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 5:50 am | Permalink

    We’ve allowed this to happen to American Universities. They’ve been defunded to the point where they’re dependent almost solely upon tuition dollars. There’s no longer an acknowledgement that higher education should exist for the greater good. We live in anti-intellectual times. Just look at the debate over the Pell Grant program. What’s happening in Virginia is abstract, and I doubt that it will lead to national outrage, but it should. It exemplifies a huge shift in American intellectual thought. The only reason we now collectively fund education and research at all is because it leads to discoveries that are of value to industry. It’s shameful.

  4. Thom Elliott
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Pardon me, what American intellectual thought is there to shift? Philosophy is all but dead in the US, agonized and ignorent shouting dominates every area of discourse, technological devices and mindset have rendered our society inert intellectually, by design. Now every Joe the Plumber already knows all there is to know about life; I must work to turn fastfood into shit, then I will die and white Jesus will let me into the stripclub in the sky. What’s wrong with only funding education to produce workers to produce industry or engineers or salesmen? We are a socalled ‘consumerist’ eater society, we need only to produce workers to facilitate technological consumption.

  5. anon
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    When “local business leaders” grow their wealth well, they achieve standing. This happens in the local Entrepreneurial culture as well, doesn’t it?

    The more standing that’s achieved, and wealth that’s grown, the more power an individual has. What does someone with power do with it? Well, the record shows they tend to wield it.

    So Paul Tudor Jones has allegedly advocated against something he didn’t like. What’s the answer to this kind of misuse of power?

    Simple: wealth is an illness, whether you’re a hipster millionaire or a malicious one. Even more so, wealth + a position of influence is a recipe for disaster.

  6. Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Mr. Jones is clearly my better (God clearly has rewarded him with riches and favors him above most others ).

    Equality is clearly a sham that must be buried once and for all. The church denies that equality exist, the proper hierarchy of man (I do mean man–woman belong on the bottom) is God given, and anyone who spouts such nonsense (equality and justice) is clearly the devils handmaiden (make no mistake it was Eve that led us down this evil path). My grandfather was born a serf (Russian Poland-1864), and the way things are going my granddaughter will die one.
    God wants it this way.

  7. Kerri
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    Mark, this is also a very good read if you haven’t seen it:

  8. Meta
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    From the article that Kerri just linked to.

    So what is “strategic dynamism,” and who are its practitioners? Quite the opposite of the methodical, long-term visions found in most universities’ strategic plans, strategic dynamism implies a near-constant “stirring of the pot” within an organization, explains Donald C. Hambrick, a professor of management at Pennsylvania State University’s main campus.

    That could mean wild changes in asset allocation within a company’s investment portfolio or a radical alteration of a business’s marketing approach. Proponents of strategic dynamism value the potential rewards of substantial, fast-paced change more than the stability of a gradual strategic evolution, Mr. Hambrick says.

    There’s another thing about executives who embrace strategic dynamism: They’re totally in love with themselves, Mr. Hambrick says. In 2007, Mr. Hambrick co-authored a study that found a strong correlation between a chief executive’s level of narcissism and his or her penchant for making frequent changes consistent with strategic dynamism.

  9. Knox
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    One hopes there are reporters pouring all over UVA right now, trying to get to the bottom of this. I suspect that interesting things will be found. Specifically, I suspect there are certain things that these donors were pushing for that Sullivan was anxious to act on. Were they pushing for her to take a hard line with campus unions? Were they asking for her to gamble the University’s endowment funds on (their) high risk investments? I’m sure, as we peel the onion, this will become much more clear.

  10. Eel
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    In the absence of state and federal funding, big dollar donors have an unprecedented say over administrative matters a schools such as UM and UVA. What’s happening to Sullivan, I’m sure, is being watched closely by university presidents across the United States.

  11. Serfer
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Don’t we have a CEO at UM?

  12. John Galt
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Consensus building is for pussies. UVA needs a leader with a strong hand, who can rush in boldly, like a hedge fund manager, and capitalize on opportunities at a moment’s notice. Only then will we have an educational system in this country as strong and secure as our investment banking system.

  13. Dan
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink


    Mary Sue Coleman is on the Board of Directors for Johnson and Johnson, but she is not the CEO.

  14. Mr. X
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    I had the occasion to speak with Sullivan on a few occasions and found her to be incredibly thoughtful, engaged and eloquent about the role of the modern university. I don’t know how she was a leader, but, if my personal interaction was any indication, I can see why thousands of students and faculty at the University of Virginia are protesting her dismissal. I don’t know that she’s got any chance of returning to the president’s office, but it’s worth noting that Kiernan has stepped down from the board as a result of the backlash. It’s conceivable, I suppose, that others involved in the coup could likewise be taken down, and that she could beat this thing.

  15. Kerri
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Apparently, at least part of the reason they wanted her gone was her refusal to eliminate German and Latin programs:

  16. Mr. Y
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Yes, there’s no reason to know German….. except for the fact that most of the science upon which everything we know was written in it.

    I love the fact that they hired her to turn UVA into a research powerhouse, and then pushed her to eliminate the two languages most important for the understanding of science.


  17. Aunt Betsy
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    News from Virginia……

  18. Steve
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    Forcing out the first woman president, one who has considerable accomplishments as a scholar, great administrative experience, and proven diplomatic skills is a disastrous mistake for the University of Virginia, sometimes known as “Mr. Jefferson’s University” with a great commitment to traditions of free inquiry, though these are anathema to Christianist zealots like Virginia Attorney General Cuckoonelli (my spelling) who has fought Sullivan to get e-mails of climate scientists and the delegates forcing the rape of women seeking abortions in Virginia. The credibility of the state has been injured by its governor (Bob McConnell) who appoints the regents (“visitors” or, more accurately, rich political hacks who should not be allowed near Mr. Jefferson’s University.

  19. Robert
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Remember a few years ago when an informal club of self-serving career politicians from western Wayne County added Eastern Michigan University to their game of musical chairs? How’d that turn out for everybody?

  20. Mr. X
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    She kicked their asses. Theresa Sullivan was reinstated as President.

  21. kjc
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    great news!

  22. Posted June 26, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Absurd. UVA should have just let the free market work.

  23. Allie
    Posted April 4, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I wanted to point out that in September of this past year, James E. Ryan was named as the new president of the University of Virginia to replace Teresa Sullivan. I attended the university from 2012 to 2017, and despite the negative press denouncing President Sullivan’s original dismissal, there were in fact many faculty and students who found her leadership lacking. She was friendly and intelligent and funny, but there were concerns regarding her willingness to innovate. UVA has not changed the College of Arts and Sciences curriculum in 50 years, and many students complained that the University is too steeped in tradition to make any changes. I love UVA and President Sullivan, but she did not embark on many changes or projects more significant than construction on the rotunda. When the false Rolling Stone article detailing an alleged gang rape was published, President Sullivan did nothing to warn the students or community. In addition, in an attempt to curtail student drinking, she hired a large number of ABC officers to patrol grounds, which resulted in violent encounters and no real change. Thank you for your article, but in hindsight, at least in the UVA community, many are wishing that President Sullivan had stepped down 5 years ago. In fact, a friend told me the Board of Visitors, who did seek counsel from faculty and students regarding President Sullivan’s dismissal, carried out the process privately in an attempt to be discreet and respectful. Obviously this was a foolish decision, but their intentions were not selfish or material. They were in fact focused on long-term goals, not “quarterly profits.” Thank you for your time.

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