Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell washed his hands Tuesday of the controversial ousting of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan by the school's governing body, though he faulted the board for not being more open about its reasons for forcing Sullivan out.
"I understand it has been a lot of heartache, a lot of questions, a lot of emotions," McDonnell said from Sweden, where he is finishing up a 10-day trade mission. "The board, from the best I can determine, made the decision that was in the best long-term interest of the university."
The backlash on campus to Sullivan's ouster after just two years on the job was swift, and led to the resignation Tuesday of Vice Rector Mark Kington.
McDonnell, whose twin sons attend U.Va., empathized with students, faculty and alumni upset with the decision, but the governor ultimately backed the board, which on Tuesday tapped Carl Zeithaml, dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, to replace Sullivan as interim president.
The circumstances of Sullivan's dismissal remain hazy. Her dismissal was discussed not in a public board meeting, but in a series of private phone calls between Rector Helen Dragas and other board members.
Both sides issued statements saying only that Sullivan and the board did not see eye to eye on leadership style and how quickly to implement agreed-upon changes.
"I have been described as an incrementalist. It is true," Sullivan said. "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. Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university."
McDonnell distanced himself from the board's action.
"My goal and my role is to appoint the best people I can to the governing boards," McDonnell said. "If a governor ever starts to micromanage boards ... we will completely undermine the governing structure in higher education in Virginia."
He noted that Dragas, the head of the university board, was appointed by Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine. McDonnell said earlier that he had learned of the board's plan "a few days before the decision" was announced.
Dragas' term as rector ends this summer. McDonnell would not say if he would reappoint her, but praised her as "an incredibly good leader and strong participant on the board."