Did Breitbart Investigation Play Any Role in Sudden Resignation of UVA President?

Did Breitbart Investigation Play Any Role in Sudden Resignation of UVA President?

Sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence. Sometimes it’s more than that.

Based on all available current evidence, it appears that Teresa A. Sullivan’s sudden resignation as President of the University of Virginia this past Sunday was most likely unrelated to an ongoing Breitbart News investigation into twenty-two-year-old allegations of scientific misconduct. However, since none of the key players in this drama–neither the sixteen members of the Board of Visitors who asked for her resignation, nor President Sullivan–have been willing to offer much in the way of explanation, rumors and speculation as to the true reasons for her sudden dismissal have been rampant.

Here’s a chronology that documents the curious coincidence of timing:

Monday June 4:

Breitbart News reports in an article, “Warren Accused of ‘Repeated Instances of Scientific Misconduct’ Before Harvard Hire,” that Rutgers Professor Philip Shuchman charged President Sullivan and co-authors Elizabeth Warren (the current Democratic nominee for the United States Senate in Massachusetts) and Jay Westbrook in 1990 with “scientific misconduct” in the research upon which their 1989 book, As We Forgive Our Debtors: Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America, was based.

Tuesday, June 5

Out of the blue, Teresa A. Sullivan, whom I had not contacted, but who apparently had been forwarded my previous email requesting comments on the story from her co-author, Jay Westbrook, sent me an email that contained a two page letter and eight hitherto private documents she claims are evidence of exoneration of these scientific misconduct charges against her, Elizabeth Warren, and Jay Westbrook. You can see her letter below:

Undated letter from Teresa A. Sullivan to Michael Patrick Leahy

In this undated letter to me, sent with her private residential address in the letterhead, President Sullivan made the following statements: 

Scientific misconduct is not simply one more nasty thing you can say about somebody. It is a specific indictment, and must be handled through a regulated process of investigations and conclusion. We undertook that process and were exonerated. There was no scientific misconduct. Anyone who repeats these false allegations is simply indulging in the politics of personal destruction. [emphasis added] 

Wednesday, June 6:

According to this article, Rector Helen Dragas, who serves as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors, informed Virginia Governor McDonnell that the Board intended to dismiss Sullivan. The decision was said to be unanimous, sixteen to zero.

Thursday, June 7:

I sent Sullivan and Westbrook a “heads up” email in which I told them the documents President Sullivan had sent me earlier in the week are not exculpatory. President Sullivan sent me these eight documents with the intent of showing they exonerated her, Elizabeth Warren, and Jay Westbrook from charges of scientific misconduct. But subsequent investigations revealed exactly the opposite. Far from exonerating Sullivan, Warren, and Westbrook, these documents (all of which will be shown in subsequent Breitbart News articles) cast doubt on the integrity of the academic work she conducted in collaboration with Elizabeth Warren and Jay Westbrook.

An excerpt from my Thursday, June 7 email to President Sullivan and Jay Westbrook reads as follows: 

In essence, it appears to me that the charges of scientific misconduct were never fully resolved.   The three of you never responded publicly to the allegations, as the NSF suggested and as Rutgers officials invited you to do in a response that would be published in the Rutgers Law Review.   

I’ve reviewed the preliminary inquiry report prepared by Dean Langlois and Dean Yudof that President Sullivan forwarded to me, and it does not appear to address several of Professor Shuchman’s allegations… It narrowly focuses on the question of making data available to Professor Shuchman in a way that fully accepts your argument that it would be unethical to provide the full data set to Professor Shuchman. Further investigation into these narrow allegations was clearly warranted…     

Further, I’ve reviewed the final closing memorandum filed by the NSF on this matter in July of 1991, and it’s quite clear to me that the NSF failed to follow its own established policies and procedures for investigating charges of scientific misconduct. Indeed, the NSF didn’t even investigate those charges.   

So the NSF findings are, quite frankly, not exculpatory, as President Sullivan stated in her letter to me of earlier this week. 

Sunday, June 10:

The Board of Visitors dismissed Sullivan. The Virginian-Pilot reported the story that day:

Teresa Sullivan will resign as president of the University of Virginia in August because of differences with the Board of Visitors. In a letter distributed Sunday morning, the board’s rector, Helen Dragas, said the board and Sullivan “today mutually agreed that she will step down as president” on Aug. 15, about two years after she arrived at U.Va. 

The letter touched on conflicts between Sullivan and the board without specifying them. In a statement in the letter, Sullivan said, “Although the board and I have a philosophical difference of opinion, I will always treasure having had the opportunity to work with so many gifted faculty and staff, talented students, and loyal alumni.” 

According to the Daily Progress, Charlottesville’s daily newspaper, Sullivan’s resignation caught the community by surprise:

Albemarle County Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker said he was surprised and disappointed by the news of Sullivan’s departure. Rooker, whose undergraduate and law degrees are both from UVa, served on the Planning and Coordination Council, a joint city-county-university planning committee, with Sullivan. “I think it is a terrific loss to the university,” he said Sunday. “She is intelligent and articulate, and put forward a vision of the university that was intelligent.” 

Rooker said he had not heard any rumblings of Sullivan’s departure before Sunday, nor did he have any insight as to what differences she and the board may have had. “I don’t have an inkling and I didn’t hear a hint of discord there,” he said. 

The Daily Cavalier, the University of Virginia student newspaper, reported that students were also taken by surprise: 

Student Council President Johnny Vroom called Sullivan’s resignation a “shock,” but said he did not have an opinion on whether the decision was warranted or not. 

Monday, June 11:

An editorial at the Daily Progress called the dismissal of UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan “a mistake.”

From all we’ve heard from people in the trenches, President Sullivan is highly thought-of. 

The faculty like her. 

The business community likes her. 

The students like her. 

But the board says it wants “bold” leadership that is more “pro-active” and that deals more effectively with a rapidly changing environment in medicine and academia. Funny, we thought President Sullivan was doing that — while also demonstrating that she cares deeply about the quality of life experienced by students, faculty, staff, parents and alumni. Intellectually, she had a firm grip on cutting-edge topics such as invention and innovation, and on retro issues — so old that they are new again — such as business ethics. Many people in the community also believed that Ms. Sullivan was doing exactly that. 

The “out of the blue” nature of Sullivan’s dismissal was highlighted in an article at Inside Higher Education

Robert M. O’Neil, a retired president and law professor at the university, said … he was “baffled” by Sunday’s news, and had heard only good things about Sullivan.   

Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson Professor and chair of media studies at Virginia, said via e-mail: “President Sullivan is the best president I have ever worked for. She has made every place she has worked a better place to study and teach. I wish the University of Virginia had let her do her job. This is a great loss to Virginia and a terrible mistake by its politically appointed board.”   

Given the out-of-the-blue nature of Sunday’s announcement, many UVa watchers scoured the rector’s statements for clues about what may have caused the rift.

Tuesday, June 12:

The community backlash to Sullivan’s dismissal continued, as the faculty demanded an explanation in a letter to Rector Dragas and the Board of Visitors co-signed by 33 chairs and program directors:

The undersigned Department Chairs and Program Directors of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences write in support of the letter submitted by the Faculty Senate to protest the resignation of President Teresa Sullivan and to join in the university-wide request for clarification. We understand the Board’s fiduciary responsibilities and believe they can be performed most effectively for the mission of the University in conversation with the faculty–the stewards of that mission of higher education. As leaders of the University’s core academic unit, we think it crucial to understand better the rationale for this decision.

Wednesday, June 13:

Continued speculation centered around the “philosophical differences” between President Sullivan and the Board of Visitors. These differences seem to center on issues related to budgets and failure to hit fundraising targets.

Looming in the background are political differences between President Sullivan and the two most powerful politicians in the state–Republican Governor Bob McDonnell and Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. As Inside Higher Education reported:

Sullivan has taken high profile positions against the positions of the two most powerful Republican politicians in the state (while she has also worked with them on other issues). She has questioned the push by Governor Bob McDonnell to cap the use of tuition dollars to pay for financial aid for other students. (Governor McDonnell issued a statement of praise for Sullivan on Sunday.)  

She also resisted many of the efforts of Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II to obtain records of a former faculty member who works on climate change. Cuccinelli argued that the records might show flaws in climate change research while many academic groups argued that he was trying to intimidate researchers who hold the consensus view that climate change is real. The Virginia Supreme Court in March backed the university’s position that Cuccinelli did not have a right to all of the papers. 

Thursday, June 14:

Backlash against the forced resignation of President Sullivan continued, as Virginia Business reported:

[T]he executive council of the U.Va. Faculty Senate approve[s] a resolution expressing its lack of confidence in the rector, vice rector and board of visitors while supporting Sullivan.  

Sunday, June 17:

While President Sullivan’s resignation and the Breitbart News investigation into unresolved allegations of scientific misconduct may not be related in any way, it’s worth wondering if new information will reveal whether the timing of the two events is simply coincidental, or if there’s more to it than mere coincidence. 

One area of further inquiry is suggested by President’s Sullivan’s conduct when confronted by the original charges of scientific misconduct back in 1990. As she stated in her undated letter to me, which I received via email on June 5:

Twenty-two years ago Professor Shuchman of Rutgers did indeed publish a book review in the Rutgers Law Reveiw that contained a charge of scientific misconduct against me and my co-authors, Elizabeth Warren and Jay Westbrook. As I was required to do by University regulations, I immediately asked my employer, the University of Texas, to investigate these charges.

Did President Sullivan, upon learning of the Breitbart News investigation into these twenty-two-year-old charges of scientific misconduct, immediately inform her employer–this time the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors–that the charges of scientific misconduct had resurfaced and were being described as “unresolved”? If so, did this information factor into the decision by Rector Dragas to move quickly and decisively in securing the unanimous support of the fifteen other members of the Board of Visitors to request President Sullivan’s resignation? Given the level of community support apparently enjoyed by President Sullivan, why did she so readily acquiesce to the board’s sudden demand for her resignation?

Breitbart News has posed these questions to both President Sullivan and Rector Dragas via phone and email messages. Neither have responded as of yet.

Michael Patrick Leahy is a Breitbart News contributor, Editor of Broadside Books’ Voices of the Tea Party e-book series, and author of Covenant of Liberty: The Ideological Origins of the Tea Party Movement.