Skip to main content Skip to search
01 Aug 2017
Audio Overview
John Alexander

Note Audio file not available.

Interviewer: Okay, so, could you please state your name and spell it for the record?


Richard Poulson: Richard Poulson P-O-U-L-S-O-N.


I: And I’m Emily Catino and this interview is taking place Georgetown in Washington DC and we are going to be discussing the resignation and reinstatement of President Teresa Sullivan. And, can I please ask you to give your oral consent to this interview taking place?


Poulson: Yes.


I: Okay thank you. So can you tell me about the nature of your relationship with the University of Virginia?


Poulson: I am a graduate of the University of Virginia, my wife has two degrees from the University of Virginia, my brother has a degree, and I have nephews and nieces all, three of whom have degrees, one of whom had two degrees. I have also been active on behalf of the university and the Alumni Association, I was co-chair of an early capital campaign with Albert Small who Mortimer Capital in Washington, I have been president of the Alumni Association and I served three terms as chair of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation.


I: And how did you first hear about the resignation of Teresa Sullivan?


Poulson: I received a telephone call from a friend who asked  me if I knew what was going on and I had to plead ignorance because I did not and then I read about it in the newspaper.


I: And what was your initial reaction to the event?


Poulson: Shock, dismay, disappointment. I frankly did not see how this could happen at the university, where the governance of the university had been handled in the past by people who were not seeking publicity, who governed with quiet dignity from behind the scenes.


I: Would you say…so how do you think the current governance was being handled in opposition to previous governments?


Poulson: I think that there had to be some pretty ambitious people who thought that because they were on the Board of Visitors that they could dictate policy to the university and certainly that’s what a Board does, it creates policy, but this seemed to be more or less a coup or a cabal with a few people, and certainly not the entire Board. The unfortunate thing is that Virginia has a Sunshine Act that (maybe that’s not unfortunate) that when more than three people meet it has to be public. If the Board had met publicly and had a discussion on this, then you could probably justify almost any result but what is done in secrecy behind the scenes where some Board members were not even consulted I’m not certain that’s a good example of corporate governance.


I: And how did you follow the story, what sources did you use…


Poulson: Well I talked to several friends who were past rectors of the Board of Visitors, some current members of the Board of Visitors, and of course I read the rather scathing articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Daily Progress, the Richmond Times Dispatch.


I: So did your opinion of the event change at all or did it remain constant based on your discussions?


Poulson: Well it probably evolved, I guess I moved from a situation of being angered that something like this could happen to a situation where I believe the damage has been done, it probably can never be rectified in whole, but at this point we ought to move on and take steps to ensure that it never happens again.


I: So would you agree—I believe the Board has said that, you know, anyone who continues to talk about this issue is just hurting the University. Would you agree with that statement or do you think that it could benefit from some discussion?


Poulson: I think that shows remarkable hubris on the Board that where the started this and where they brought it to an ill conceived solution that they would dare try to intimidate somebody else to not talk about it.


I: So you mentioned that you know the damage is done but do you think it affects the reputation of the school at all or do you think it’s been resilient to this event?


Poulson: Well I think the University is so strong that it could be resilient to anything—this too will pass away. It’s unfortunate that it happened, in many respects it removes Virginia from what I would consider a lofty perch, it is no better or no worse in the eyes of a lot of people from other schools that don’t have nearly the history of the University.


I: So how would you characterize a beginning, middle, and end to this event if you think there is an end?


Poulson: Well I think that there is an end and the end is that Mrs. Dragas should leave the Board when her term is up. She should be replaced by a seasoned person who is accustomed to dealing with matters of governance and the Board should go on. A lot of people wonder why governor McDonnell reappointed Mrs. Dragas, frankly I think that probably was a smart thing on his part to do. Had she been forced out I think there would have been more of a polarizing effect, you have to admire President Sullivan’s grace, integrity and stature in handling the matter in the way she has handled it.


I: And do you have any inkling of maybe when this all started?


Poulson: I only know what I read when it started, I assume that it started in June, but obviously there had to be some planning an discussion before that.


I: So speaking of kind of the make up of the board, it’s appointed by the state, and without any faculty on as members of the board do you think—and many have expressed opinions that there should be faculty to avoid a future event like the one we saw in June—so how would you kind of change the make up, if at all, and do you think there’s room for improvement in how the board is appointed?


Poulson: Well I believe in the governor’s right to appoint the board so that the state institutions, but I do believe there should be faculty representation. I don’t think that you have to have a faculty member on the board, they could certainly be ex-officio perhaps someone like Mr. Cohen, who is a chair of the faculty senate. I do think that the board should consist of more people who have academic backgrounds who have taught in major institutions, whether it be UVA or otherwise.


I: And do you think that the amount of funding that—although it is a public in-state university—do you think the amount of funding is kind of shown, is it representative of how much power the state has over choosing the governance?


Poulson: Well the state’s funding has dropped to an all time low…so much of the funding for the university, the contributions, the donations to the capital campaign and annual giving come form out-of-state sources I think that the state exercises too much influence in relation to the amount of funding they provide as far as the number of in-state students versus the amount of out-of-state students. Keep in mind that the tuition from the out-of-state students is significantly greater than the in-state students and history would show, would reflect, that major funding comes to the university from out-of-state residents.


I: And what about the role of the president in fundraising for the school, I know President Casteen, that was what he’s majorly…he did a great job of that and Sullivan has focused on other things rather than that, but do you think that that played a part in what happened in June? That they’re looking more for a fundraiser figurehead rather than someone with more academic prospects for the university?


Poulson: Well unfortunately the way of life has evolved that the president is a major player in any fundraising or capital campaigns. If they did not think that President Sullivan had the ability to be a fundraiser and that that was a criteria for the position, they never should have selected her as president. John Casteen was a major fundraiser, a master fundraiser, but it took him a long time to get to that position, keep in mind he was there for twenty years, and the first ten years he was not that adept at fundraising. We’re at a situation now where capital campaigns are perpetual, there will probably be very few breaks between capital campaign three and capital campaign four, and the president has to be a fundraiser. It might be helpful if the rector were a fundraiser such as Gordon Rainey was when he was rector, and he was also the chair of the capital campaign.


I: So then can you, if you know, you don’t choose based on fundraising abilities of the president, which makes sense, why do you think that Teresa Sullivan was the next one to take the post after Casteen, who was so strong and so well-remembered?


Poulson: She had wonderful academic talents and abilities and was clearly qualified. Would it have been better for her to have been a provost, perhaps so, but the former rector of the board was determined to have the new president selected during his tenure, and that’s Mr. Wynne, so I don’t know if that was a rush to judgment or not. Some would say that John Casteen was forced out s that he could be a party to the selection of the new rector, and there are ways to do this. I went to a funeral last year of a friend named Steve Weiss who had sat through four different selections of new presidents over forty years on the board at Cornell. He was a major benefactor of Cornell; he gave chairs form tennis to English and to the medical school. The rector I think has a major responsibility for fundraising and should be selected somewhat on that basis.


I: And you mentioned earlier at the very beginning, when you first heard what happened in June that you expressed some shock and disgust, I think you said—


Poulson: Shock and awe and disgust.


I: Shock and awe and disgust. So why did you feel that way what did you feel had been done, what had violated your trust or your faith in the governance of UVA?


Poulson: Well this is gonna sound like a curmudgeon type of response, and it is: I think that the Board of Visitors should govern with quiet dignity. I somehow think of it a little about how we used to say that a gentleman, a gentleman’s name appears in the newspaper three times: his birth, his marriage, and his death. And I don’t think that the board should do things that would put them on the front pages of newspapers and frankly hold themselves up to the ridicule that has been directed at them.


I: Do you think in a community of trust and a community of honor that UVA stands for, do you think there was any violation on that part?


Poulson: I do. I don’t think that Ms. Dragas had fifteen votes. I think that the way she gathered up the votes that she did, if it doesn’t violate the Honor Code, then it violates the spirit of the Honor Code. I mean I would refer you to “Munny” Boyd’s comment, a professor at the law school, that no means, however justified, should cause someone to lose their honor or integrity. It’s hard to blame Ms. Dragas…It is hard to fault only Ms. Dragas, whether she was a ringleader or not, I guess the consensus us that she was the ringleader, other members of the board, some members of the board obviously went along and at some point somebody should have said stop, this is not the way to do this.



I: So she kind of, or the board, did kind of violate, as you said, there were certain violations to the Honor Code and for the rest of the university community and students, there’s a single-sanction dismissal. So do you think that that should have applied in this case?


Poulson: Well I think that the better reading would be that the board is not subject to the Honor Code because it applies in actuality only to students. I think the spirit was violated, I don’t think anyone should be dismissed from the board because of it, but I would hope that they would have their future actions governed by the spirit of the honor system.


I: And do you think that, if not, if they’re not gonna be accountable in the way students are, and you’re right it would be really hard to do that, how much do you think they should uphold the original values that Thomas Jefferson put forth in establishing his university?


Poulson: A hundred percent plus. A hundred percent plus. There’s no place at the university for someone who doesn’t believe in the major cultural focal point of the university that is the honor system. And if they don’t want to abide by that, if they want to being the morals of the corporate boardroom to academia they don’t belong there.


I: So how do you think, how should we learn from this in the future, and by “we” I mean UVA itself, other public universities who are facing similar problems, how do you think?


Poulson: Transparency. Transparency and open meetings. If there’s going to be a debate on a president or a CEO’s position they should have the opportunity to appear with notice to defend their position and every board member should be asked what his or her opinion is. It shouldn’t be done with a cabal of two or three people who may or may not be driven by an overarching personal ambition.


I: So how do you think, more specifically, can we determine the value of who is appointed to make major decisions for the university? What are some traits that you would like to see?


Poulson: Well I think you have to have someone who is familiar, that doesn’t meant they have to have a prior association with the university, with the university’s values. You have to have someone who will sign on to the university’s values and understand them and there has to be transparency. Perhaps there should be greater publicity and greater exposure to someone who’s being selected or considered for president. Georgetown Law School for one, when there’s a candidate for dean, the students have a chance to interview him. Would it hurt if you were down to a short list of candidates for president, have them meet with the faculty senate, have them meet with the student council. I don’t generally believe that students are qualified to make these decisions, forgive me, but I think it would not hurt for these people to meet with representatives of the student body and certainly they should have the opportunity to meet with the faculty senate, it should not be a—someone who is designated to be president of the University of Virginia, it should not be a surprise to 99% of the university community.


I: And going back to the board and how they’re appointed a little bit, what do you think would constitute a healthy balance between state representation, corporate representation, and university representation?


Poulson: Well there is a requirement now so many being in state and so many being out of state, I don’t think any significant number of positions should be relegated to corporate representation, certainly corporate CEOs and corporate executive officers can bring a lot as far as financial management and even fundraising Is concerned, I don’t necessarily favor a faculty member other than an ex-officio member where they are entitled to sit in on all meetings and to participate and I wouldn’t even really mind an ex-officio with a vote, even though that’s a contradiction by it’s own terms.


I: Okay, and then going back to kind of the event itself, can you tell me about the nature of your participation with the event as it unfolded?


Poulson: I did not have any significant participation; I received a number of phone calls from people asking me if I knew what was going on and what did I think about it. I spoke to former rectors about it, they thought it was appalling. I talked to a number of friends who had served on the board of managers when I was president, they thought it was appalling. But I guess as far as my participation is concerned, it’s over it’s done and I would like to see the healing process continued with the major focus on the healing process.


I: Okay, and you described it as appalling and is there any specific moment that kind of evokes those feelings the most or is it just a general feeling?


Poulson: I can’t think of any specific moment except when I read more about the actual details, that were President Sullivan was blind-sighted, told that she had two days or one day to sign the agreement and that she had to be out of Carr’s Hill by August 15, I don’t think that’s how anyone should be treated, whether they’re a low-level clerk or the president of the university.


I: And so you said that you kept up with the story fairly well, so you probably knew about the rallies that took place on the lawn, what was your reaction to those?


Poulson: I thought that was great. I thought that was great and I thought that the fact that Ms. Dragas was trying to enlist people like Larry Sabato to come to her defense and he refused, and I think that his great, it says a lot about him. I think the former executive vice president aligned himself too closely with the board and not his boss, I think that was a great step of disloyalty on Mr. Strine’s part. The rallies were good, I think they were well intentioned, well executed, and well received and I think they had a major impact on what happened.


I: So what else did you think had the biggest impact on her eventually being reinstated, besides the rallies?


Poulson: I think when Governor McDonnell said resolve this or I want a resignation from all of you. And there were casualties from all this, Mark Kington who was the deputy director or the vice rector was a good board member, I mean he had been appointed by a democratic governor and republican governor and I think he saw that he had made an error and he resigned to remove himself. I think this latest resignation, Mr. Kirk, who’s resigning because he’s moving to Florida, he was a ringleader from what I read and I question what his credentials were to be a ringleader, and what I’ve heard, and I can document this, there was a small group of three, four, or five who thought that they were entitled to do this and several of whom I know from prior relationships and in my eyes they had no credentials.


I: And something—the presidents of public universities have been, the word is, “ousted”—in other places, other than Virginia, so what do you think was so special about the university as opposed to these other schools, that we were actually able to get the president reinstated after she was forced to resign?


Poulson: I think it became very apparent early on that a mistake had been made. It’s one thing to oust a university president, but you don’t ask a university president within two years of their taking office unless there is something specific, some act of moral turpitude, where they have to go, and you don’t do it behind the scenes where no one really knows what’s going on and frankly, the cause was never stated besides “a disagreement.” And the thing that bothers me most of all is how these three people who went to see Ms. Sullivan said that she had to be out of Carr’s Hill by August the 15th, that to me is reprehensible.


I: So you said that the specifics of why she was asked to resign are unclear but form what you could gather from the very cryptic explanations, what do you think was the main reason, then, behind the resignation?


Poulson: I think the board was concerned and rightly so about fundraising. I don’t think they gave her a chance; she wasn’t there long enough. Form what I’ve seen she’s created very good relationships with major donors. If anything I understand that donations are up since this happened. I don’t think this was a way to get donations up, but everything was vague, just totally vague, and I still resent the fact that she was blind-sighted the way that she was. Essentially called to a meeting and said either you resign or we terminate you and from her standpoint she had not chance to think about it, even though her husband’s a lawyer and a professor at the law school, she had no chance to get what I would consider specialized legal advice on this, she didn’t want to be fired, I think that’s totally natural, and I think the damage to her career would have been significant, I really do, I mean that was unfair for her because I don’t care if she’s a great president or not, I don’t think that she should have been treated this way.


I: How do you think that these events, if at all, besides donations going up in a positive way, do you think there have been negative effects or more positive effects that you’d want to share?


Poulson: I don’t think there have been any positive effects, I think that if we handle it the right way from now on that it is an example of a positive way of dealing with a negative situation. We have damages that the university is no longer considered on a level or a tier far above other schools, I mean we’re no better now than schools that are rife with dissention in politics at the board’s and president’s level. We are just like they are now.


I: Do you think it’s something that we can recover through…?


Poulson: Absolutely, absolutely.


I: How would you say?


Poulson: I think it will take a period of time, I think it will take a lot of transparency, I think it will take a clear declaration and institution that the president’s responsible for the day-to-day function of the university, that the board is entitled to provide broad outlines of policy and set specific goals, but specific goals should not be set unless the president is on board with those goals.


I: And how do you think the university has changed, maybe from closer to Jefferson’s time at the university as opposed to now, what do you think are the biggest changes?


Poulson: Well, size first of all, communication, I mean diversity, when Jefferson was there it was white males, I think diversity has been a great help I think communication has been possibly there’s too much communication now, I mean the emails that went back and forth with the rector and other members of the board are just damaging and they should have known that somebody was gonna seize in these with the freedom of information act. And I think people who are attuned to appropriate governance do not engage in emails like that. I just thought that was incredibly naïve, for people who are masters of the universe, you know CEOs of their own companies, partners in major investment banking firms, it was just bad form.


I: So what do you think the effect of those articles, I think the Cav Daily was a major benefactor of kind of putting those emails out there, how do you think that helped or hurt the situation?


Poulson: I think it helped, because well first of all it showed, and I wrote for the cavalier Daily when I was a student so I’m glad to see them take a position, it showed that no one could, even if they tried, stifle their independence and their ability to seek the truth and the facts, I was very proud of the Cavalier Daily.


I: And I guess kind of to conclude I want to ask if there’s anything that we haven’t covered, that you feel that you need to say or want to talk about more?


Poulson: No, I think that the make up of the Board of Visitors is something that should be talked about a little bit. I believe totally in the right of the governor to make the appointments, he’s made some good recent appointments like Frank Atkinson, George Martin, but I think that there should be a commitment going in that if you go on the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia you are there to serve the university and not serve your personal ambition or desires.


I: And so to conclude, actually, what do you think is the biggest lesson to be learned from what happened?


Poulson: That you shouldn’t bring the morals of the corporate or boardroom into the halls of academia.


I: Okay, thank you very much I really appreciate your time!