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Buford Scott Sheds Light on Sullivan Saga in Exclusive Interview

June 22, 2012

Amid the controversial resignation of UVa President Teresa Sullivan, Buford Scott is shedding insight into how the University’s Board of Visitors works.

“I'm sure everybody connected with either side of this disagreement really, really wants to have the best interest of the University served,” said Scott.

In an exclusive interview with the Newplex, the former member of the Board of Visitors and 1955 graduate of the University defends Sullivan.

“She should be given a chance to achieve those things. If, over a period of time, she's not capable of achieving those objectives, and I have to think she is, but if she's not, she'll know it. The Board of Visitors will know it and they can have an amiable parting of the ways. But she should be given three more years at least to work out those objectives” said Scott.

He expressed disappointment in the way the Board of Visitors handles a change in leadership.

“It'll be a while before we live this down, and I think the Board of Visitors, I'm sure they were doing what they thought was the right thing for the university. They really did not handle it very well at all,” said Scott.

Scott also touched on next week’s special meeting of the Board.

Stover: ”Kind of an unusual meeting. What do you see happening there?”
Scott: “I can't imagine that they would have that meeting unless they thought they were going to change their minds.”
Stover: “Do you think that's in the best interest of the university based on your knowledge?”
Scott: “Yes”
Stover: “And why is that?”
Scott: “It'll be a huge healing process that should quiet the dissent that's erupted in the last couple of weeks. It'll put President Sullivan back to work together to try to achieve some of the vision that the Board of Visitors has set out for her.”

Scott says he remains proud of the University’s traditions and has faith that trust will soon be restored at his alma mater.


FULL TRANSCRIPT:

Buford Scott: I spent two years at Yale and then transferred to Virginia. I had a wonderful time down here. Great place, made lots of friends, great admirer of the faculty and staff, people who run the university over the years. And the tradition -- I just love the tradition of Thomas Jefferson and all things for which he stood.

Chris Stover: In your many years at UVa., have you ever seen anything that's happened like what we've seen in the past two weeks?

BS: No.

CS: What's your take on everything that's happened?

BS: I try to put myself in the position of the Board of Visitors, and I'm convinced that every member of the Board of Visitors wants to do the right thing for the University of Virginia and everyone involved on either side of this question wants to do the right thing for the University of Virginia. Someone must have brought up the subject of, 'Is a the current president the right person to lead the university,' and the changes that have been indicated that were on the mind of the Board of Visitors and I don't know who that was. They haven't made it clear. They ought to say who brought that subject up. It didn't just evolve from the atmosphere.

There is some suggestion there are a few wealthy supporters in the background who probably had been reading about what the changes occuring at Stanford, Harvard, Yale and all the other universities that have gone more to distance learning, and so somehow or other the subject came up. Sowed the seed in the mind of certain people on the Board of Visitors that maybe they should take another look at the lady whom everyone seems to love and who seems to be doing a fine job, but she's only been here for two years. And they, the Board of Visitors, selected her, the selection committee, only two years ago. And that's not much time to judge a university president or anybody in any job unless something terrible happens that clearly everybody would recognize would be a reason for dismissal.

And so what hasn't been made apparent to those of us watching with interest from afar is exactly what process was followed to lead to the conclusion to dismiss the president, and that should be made public.

CS: A lot of people are pointing at the rector, Helen Dragas, for being the one to orchestrate this entire thing. How much influence does the rector actually have on the Board of Visitors?

BS: I don't happen to know Helen Dragas but I've heard nice things about her. The rector has tremendous influence. The rector, like the chairman of the corporation, is the leader, and the leader sets the direction and the leader speaks for the board.

CS: What happens in times of dissension among board members or board members and the rector? How are those types of conflicts typically handled?

BS: They have to be worked out hopefully within the organization, thereby producing as little as embarrassment as possible if some decision has to be made that might embarrass the organization. So they should be worked out internally, although something as important as a change in the administration of the University of Virginia -- there has to be some consulting with the faculty and the alumni, so it's a delicate balance. You don't want too much about personnel matters to be in the news, but at the same time, when personnel decisions have to be made, sooner or later the news comes out.

CS: Do you consider this a personnel matter:

BS: Yes.

CS: How come? The reason I'm asking this is other people are saying it's more than that, it's an academic issue because of the reasons Helen Dragas has since laid out.

BS: But those reasons didn't develop overnight. A lot of the reasons that she has indicated in her recent release were not developed in the last one or two years. They are matters that have occurred or have grown or have developed over a period of five or 10 years, much of that being during the administration and previous president and during the oversight of the previous Boards of VisItors. So if it have been up to me, I would've indicated what the highest priorities for change were and would've asked the president, President Sullivan, to carry them out. And that has not been revealed either, whether she just said, 'I'm not going to do those things,' in which case she probably should have been encouraged to retire, but if she was willing to tackle those things and has only been here for two years, she should have been given that chance.

CS: Where do you see UVa. going from here? There hasn't been a lot of good press in terms of how this was all handled. Do you see this as being a black eye as some have said?

BS: Yes, I'm afraid it is. I have been in a number of meetings in Richmond the last couple of days since i got back from Florida with my two sons, and people sort of in an embarrassed way titter with the subject of UVa. They asked me what's going to happen and what can I do to fix it and some say, 'Buford, we wish you were on the board up there and this would have never happened,' which of course is not the case. But it is an embarrassment not only in Virginia but in academia across the country and maybe around the world. It'll be a while before we live this down, and I think the Board of Visitors, again, while I'm sure they were doing what they thought was the right thing for the university, they really did not handle it very well at all.

CS: What do you say to the people who have been supporting President Sullivan? She's seen so many people come out when she was attending the board meeting earlier this week and all the faculty -- the silent vigil they held earlier this week. What do you say to all of that?

BS: She's only been here for two years. I think everybody liked her. Some element of sympathy for anybody who was treated the way she was treated by the Board of Visitors. I'm sure a lot of those people did not know her but had sympathy for the way she was treated. And there seemed to be a major reaction against the way the Board of Visitors handled it. It's sort of a piling-on situation. When the Board of Visitors is down -- it hasn't been down for, as a far as I know, ever in the history of the university, no one has jumped on the board like this before -- sometimes everyone like to pile on when you haven't had a chance to pile on before.

CS: Do you see any ill effects when it comes to alumni relations, especially when it comes to donations? Because that was another thing that people were saying that maybe Sullivan wasn't as good of a fundraiser as she could've been. Do you see this whole process over the past two weeks impacting the future?

BS: Maybe a little bit in the near future but the appeal of the university and its mission its role in Virginia and across the nation and its great reputation are so strong that that will wear off people who want to see the university succeed will continue to support it.

CS: Looking forward to next week's meeting, kind of an unusual meeting. What do you see happening there?

BS: I can't imagine that they would have that meeting unless they thought that they were going to change their minds.

CS: Do you think that's in the best interest of the university based on your knowledge?

BS: Yes.

CS: Why is that?

BS: It'll be a huge healing process. It should quiet the dissent that has erupted in the last couple of weeks. It'll put President Sullivan back to work together to try to achieve some of the vision that the Board of Visitors has set out for her. And she should be given a chance to achieve those things. If over a period of time she is not capable of achieving those objectives, and i happen to think she is, but if she's not, she'll know it. And the Board of Visitors will know it. And they can have an amiable parting of the ways. But she should be given three more years at least to work out those objectives.

CS: Any final closing thoughts or remarks about the university or about the past two weeks?

BS: Well, it's one of the greatest universities in the country and the world. The traditions -- no other university has the traditions we have. My granddaughter has just been accepted so I'm feeling very good about the university right now. Again, I'm sure everybody connected with either side of this disagreement really, really wants to have the best interest of the university served.


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