After President Teresa Sullivan’s resignation on June 10, alumni wrote more than 6,000 emails, letters and comments to the Alumni Association expressing their concerns about the University.
A printout of an Excel document containing nearly 6,000 alumni responses the Alumni Association received prior to June 21 Many of the responses came after a June 15 email from the Alumni Association invited comments that would be gathered through an online form and shared with the Board of Visitors. Alumni also expressed themselves with comments on the U.Va. Magazine website. On June 22, the Alumni Association printed them all and presented them to the Board of Visitors, four days before the Board voted to reinstate Sullivan.
What did alumni have to say? Virginia Magazine compiled statistics from the letters and comments in an effort to better understand alumni opinion.
“Far and away, the largest concern that alumni had was the perceived process undertaken by the Board in the decision and execution of the resignation. More than 60 percent of the responses we received highlighted this as a problem,” says Alumni Association President Tom Faulders.
Only about 5 percent of respondents supported the Board's actions.
Twenty percent of the sample stated that they felt they didn’t have enough information to shape an informed opinion about the Board’s actions and only 5 percent of sample included statements that supported the Board’s actions. Eugene Bogen (Col ’65) wrote, “None of us has sufficient information to approve or condemn the action taken by the executive committee of the Board of Visitors, because of the lack of a clearly worded statement in plain English explaining the reasons for President Sullivan’s dismissal.”
Approximately 31 percent of the letters mentioned a fear that U.Va.’s reputation had been tarnished, and 25 percent of the respondents explicitly stated that President Sullivan should be reinstated. This number increased over the 17 days before Sullivan’s actual reinstatement.
Alumni Association President Tom Faulders and Director of New Media Brittany Averette walk across Grounds to the Board of Visitors office to deliver alumni feedback.
Annie Mountcastle (Col ’08) wrote an email that expressed how she believed Sullivan’s ouster should be reconsidered by the Board. She writes:
“I spent a year working in restorative justice with first-time juvenile offenders. The experience reinforced for me the knowledge that we all make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are big, sometimes monumental, but that doesn't mean we can't stop, be still and try to repair what we have broken. I recognize and appreciate that you all are working hard to repair the harm that your actions have caused, but that is impossible without full engagement of the community that has been harmed. Your apparent disregard of the Faculty Senate's specific requests is alarming, at best.”
Ben Gaston (Col ’79), who is also a faculty member in the U.Va. Medical School, likened the relationship between the Board and the University to the relationship between venture capitalists and academics in a biomedical startup company. He writes:
“… Boards commonly misunderstand the innovation, the real value and the appropriate market involved in the intellectual property they license. Based on these misunderstandings, they hire consultants or appoint other Board members who also fail to understand the product. They then take the company in the wrong direction; and they blame the product when things go badly. I have seen this scenario play out more than once. Everyone loses.
… it is an interesting experiment that the Rector has begun. She will test the hypotheses that 1) people with experience in capital management are the best qualified to establish the course for an academic institution; and 2) this course is best charted without any input or wisdom from the scholars who are being managed.
The problems with the experiment are as follows. First, the Rector did not get any of the participants’ consent to enroll the institution in this experiment … [and] the model in which venture capitalists tell academics what is best for them—with only a token, patronizing dialogue—almost always fails.”
Some supported the Board’s actions. DSmith left a comment on the Virginia Magazine website that reads:
“I never fully supported the hiring of Pres. Sullivan because I did not sense that she could move the University forward. ... So I was fully supportive of the Board’s action. That said, I believe the Board has not handled this matter well.”
Alumni Association President Tom Faulders delivering a printout of comments to the Board of Visitors Other themes that emerged were a largely negative response to increasing the prevalence of online education at U.Va. and objections to the composition of the Board, both the process of member appointment and lack of faculty representation. Seventeen percent of the sample explicitly called for the resignation of Board members. Many also shared objections to cutting several liberal arts departments.
“About 95 percent of our respondents were dissatisfied with the events, whether they wrote about their objection to the process or supported Sullivan’s reinstatement,” says Brittany Averette, new media director at the Alumni Association.
“One of the fundamental missions of any alumni association is to provide alumni with accurate, clear and timely communications,” says Faulders. “But perhaps a less obvious mission, but no less important, is to provide alumni a voice when they have something important to say or contribute. The online portal created for alumni to convey their thoughts to the Board of Visitors proved very valuable to both alumni as well as the Board.”