Thursday, June 14, 2012

UVA President Sullivan at Mount Zion First African Baptist Church

The ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan is now truly a national story. There are so many stories now, I won't begin to summarize them.

There are links to all of the news stories on a Faculty Senate website which can find HERE. The story, safe to say, is not going away soon.

I do want to draw your attention to an item that few may have noticed. Even as the Board of Visitors was preparing to announce her "resignation," President Sullivan preached last Sunday at Mount Zion First African Baptist Church, where my friend Alvin Edwards is the pastor.

Our church has many long standing ties to Mount Zion, and I was aware that President Sullivan was to be the guest preacher. Although her ouster had happened by the time she took the pulpit, no one at the church knew it. She went through with her sermon, and touched many people with her faithfulness and heart. A member of the congregation, Erika James Hayes, who is also a professor at the UVA Darden Business School, wrote this report on her blog, and I post it here in full:


I am a member of the Mount Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville, and a faculty member of the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia.  Both affiliations are relevant to a set of unusual circumstances I experienced this weekend.  On Sunday I enthusiastically attended church service.  On this day my enthusiasm was in large part because our church was welcoming Theresa Sullivan, President of the University of Virginia.  As a UVA faculty member I was looking forward to hearing her speak to a constituency often peripheral to the academic community. President Sullivan was invited by our pastor to be a guest speaker with the purpose of ministering to the congregation in honor of the high school and college graduates from our church.  As I’ve seen her do on numerous occasions at the university, she delivered eloquent, humorous, thoughtful, personal, and deliberate remarks.  Her message centered on staying true to one’s convictions, and leading with a purpose.  Referencing bible verses from the book of Romans she spoke of not allowing one’s self to conform to the inevitable trials and tribulations life will present, but to betransformed by them. She used stories to illustrate her point that one does not need to hold a particular title or position to lead, but that true leaders lead with integrity and from the heart.  True leaders lead in accordance with their values and they are not side-tracked by people who question or doubt those values.

In my professional life, I view things from a standpoint of crisis leadership and diversity, the nature of my work. But this day, I listened as a parent and member of the congregation. And I was moved by her comments.  This is precisely the message I would want my own children to hear when it is time for their graduations.   As a fellow university professor I felt affirmed by President Sullivan’s remarks because they are consistent with the message that I try to instill in the MBA students I teach.  I left the church service filled with pride for the African American graduates who were honored in our service, and proud of our President who chose to spend her Sunday morning at a predominately African American Church ministering to our young people.  I had not expected what was to come next.

When I arrived home from church I checked my email and was shocked to see a message from the University of Virginia Rector announcing that the UVA Board of Visitors and President Sullivan had mutually agreed over the weekend to part ways.  Effective August 2012, Sullivan’s two year tenure into her presidency would end, well short of the original contract term.  The message went on to identify differences in philosophical approaches for UVA’s future as the primary reason for the abrupt departure.  I suspect there is truth in the rationale provided to the university community, and I suspect that there is more to the story that we may never know.   

Like most others in the UVA community I was stunned by the turn of events.  I am also saddened by her pending departure.  I’ve had the opportunity to meet Sullivan on a number of occasions and was pleased to have served on her inauguration committee.  She is an impressive woman.  Yet, what I have been reflecting on are her comments during the church service, as they relate to confronting challenges.  Reciting verses from Romans chapter 12, Sullivan communicated: Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is —his good, pleasing and perfect will.” 

At the time that she was so graciously delivering her remarks to our church graduates, President Sullivan must have been experiencing tremendous internal turmoil as the decision to end her presidency had likely occurred within the previous 24 hours.  I suspect her charge to our graduates to be transformed by (not conform to) the challenges of life, were drawn from her own immediate need to lead in such a manner at this particular juncture in her career. 

President Sullivan concluded her remarks with the following verses from Romans 12:  We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach;  if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. 

I am keenly aware of the gifts in others; but have often questioned the gifts I offer to the world.  I have no obvious or extra-ordinary gifts in things society generally rewards (e.g., music, art, athletics, and oration) yet I have found it curious how I’ve been able to lead a rather extra-ordinary life.  President Sullivan’s remarks helped broaden my understanding of “gifts” and as I listened to the gifts she recited from Romans my own gifts began to crystallize.  Furthermore, I have a better understanding and appreciation for the true gifts in others.

President Sullivan’s choice to deliver these particular remarks takes on new meaning in light of her personal changing circumstances at UVA.  She has many gifts, and they are well recognized within the UVA community and will be well received beyond it.  I am confident that she will be positively transformed by recent challenges.


James Bu Quarles said...

Reading this has warmed my heart. Both the writer and her subject impress me. Thank you for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

What a class act President Sullivan is!