The Rehabilitation of Helen E. Dragas

By Peter Galuszka

Call it the rehabilitation of Helen E. Dragas.

Dragas, the head of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, got into a big mess last spring when she tried and failed to oust popular university President Teresa Sullivan.

After a national embarrassment, the reappointment of Dragas, a politically influential construction firm owner from Virginia Beach, seemed on the line. But as The Washington Post’s Robert McCartney points out, the state’s cosmic forces are lining up to keep her, albeit with a slap on the wrist.

McCartney points out, “She’s a member, or at least a close associate, of an elite group of top business-friendly politicians and corporate executives who often guide the state’s affairs — and they take care of their own.”

Spot on. Dragas was first appointed by Sen. and then-Gov. Tim Kaine and has been actively supported in her trials by Sen. Mark Warner. Both are Democrats, the party favored by Dragas in her political donations. Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell went along by not canning her last summer when her botched effort at dismissing Sullivan brought the school unwanted attention.

Virginia has long been ruled by an oligarchy of lawyers, bankers and business people. Their locus had been Richmond, but it has migrated more to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads as population movement and businesses shift their focus.

One would think that Virginia might grow beyond this traditional and typically Southern model, but apparently it hasn’t. For evidence, take a look at U.Va.’s current board.

Almost everyone is a business person of some sort. I count four lawyers from powerful state firms, a New York area financier, a Texas beer distributor, a coal industry veteran and developers. There’s also a student member, the dean of Johns Hopkins Medical School and the former president of James Madison University.

Contrast that with Harvard University’ Board of Overseers and the picture gets a lot more interesting. There are business people and lawyers, to be sure. But there’s also a writer-in-residence from Yale, a concert violinist and professor, distinguished biographers and journalists, and even an astronaut.

It seems obvious that Harvard’s board might have a broader vision than the strictly-business views at Mr. Jefferson’s University. That’s a shame, because one of Dragas’s initiatives was to reassess and perhaps dismantle some of her university’s strengths, such as teaching the classics and non-mainstream foreign languages.

A personal note:  last night, I attended a dinner sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Greater Richmond of which I am a member. One of my table mates was a young woman who graduated from U.VA. in 2011 and had spent a number of months in Dushanbe, the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Tadjikistan. I had spent some years in the Soviet Union and later Russia and although I had never been to Tadjikistan, I knew and worked with people from there.

The young woman got her start in Charlottesville because the university offers relevant languages including Persian. She also picked up some Tadjik and Dari. “They even offer Tibetan,” she said.

Will that survive if the Dragas approach continues? Good question.Big Business wants more engineers and researchers. Some members of the U.Va. board think it’s time to think more Chinese, and streamline courses to those that can make a buck faster. After all, it’s been in the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal and maybe they read “The Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother,” so that has to be the appropriate course of action.

On the block might be Persian, not to mention more universal tongues such as German. Good luck next time this country needs a skilled linguist in an during the next time of terror.

With Dragas on the way to rehabilitation, the University of Virginia is hardly out of the woods.

9 Responses to The Rehabilitation of Helen E. Dragas

  1. Peter, your point that Virginia is ruled by an oligarchy is a defensible one. One could argue to what extent it is an oligarchy but one would be hard pressed to deny that there are elements of oligarchy in the state’s political economy.

    With each passing year, I see more and more rent-seeking behavior on the part of Virginia’s larger corporations — behavior that reinforces the oligarchical nature of state government.

  2. Good article, as usual from PG.

    I was thinking as I read ..that different Colleges and Universities have different BOVs … that in a way almost uniquely define the particular institution and it’s culture –

    For instance, the BOV at MWC in Fredericksburg has twice hired Presidents that were – to put it politely- not good choices despite a bunch of movers and shakers and a hired consultant.. and they got not one but two clinkers in a row.

    Dragas was headed in the opposite direction. She saw what she felt was – bad leadership – and took point guard position to oust her.

    I still think Dragas had legitimate concerns about the direction of the University but her approach made a Bull in a China Shop look like Tiny Tim tiptoeing through the tulips.

  3. Here’s a trivia question – how much tax revenue in Virginia is lost each year because of the cumulative effect of special tax breaks handed out by the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond under the guise of “economic development”?

    $12.5B per year in carve outs, credits and exemptions.

    That’s billion. With a “b”.

    Chap Petersen is one of the few members of the General Assembly who is not a total buffoon. He has proposed legislation that would “sunset” these tax breaks five years after they are granted. The General Assembly could still vote to extend individual tax breaks but they would have to vote to do that.

    This is extremely sensible legislation which should be supported by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

    Will it be supported by politicians on both sides of the aisle?

    Or, will it anonymously die in committee?

    Place your bets.

  4. You have to say one thing for Dragas – she wasn’t “playing politics”. There is no way that her decision to fire Sullivan without having a replacement in hand was going to help her political profile. Whether she was right or wrong – she wasn’t trying to curry favor or propel herself forward politically.

  5. re: playing politics

    you don’t call skulking around with confederates trying to make it look like the full board met and voted to fire … politics?

    geeze DJ….

    I think, in fact, that was her problem. She was not up front and forthright about her concerns and went out of her way to not have a full airing of the issues.

    I call that politics… don’t know bout you…

    albeit… BAD, incompetent politics but politics.

    • LarryG – Playing politics is taking an action for the primary purpose of enhancing one’s political image. I would call what Dragas did more of a “palace coup” than playing politics.

      Nobody has called Dragas stupid (although they have called her almost everything else).

      She wasn’t trying to further her political career with the actions she took. At best, Sullivan would have gone quietly into the night. At worst … well, the worst case is what actually happened.

      If you want to see someone “playing politics” watch Ken Kookinelli over the next ten months. I am waiting for him to get “secretly” photographed wearing a tie dyed shirt with a peace sign!

  6. DJ – how about this? Would you agree that the TECHNIQUES of enhancing political careers and launching palace coups have many similarities?

    The question is – in an environment where you are working with peers and colleagues towards some goal or purpose – would you TRUST Dragas to be honest with you about how she felt about something?

    That’s my big complaint. For someone to be a legitimate change-broker, you have to have the trust of the people you are working with and she’s more of a Parana – not the kind of person you really want in an institution that needs to change and needs to foster an environment of trust and respect.

    I think she’s a loser who has basically poisoned any real efforts to motivate important and necessary changes at UVA.

    You can’t work as a team if you’re always worried about getting a spear in the back from one of them.

    • It seems to me that excellence in leadership requires three attributes:

      1. Your intentions are based on doing what’s right for those who you represent rather than for yourself.

      2. Your technique for achieving success is fair, ethical and transparent.

      3. You are willing to admit mistakes and remedy the situation. This is something of an extension of #1.

      Whether she was right or wrong about Sullivan, Dragas did not violate #1. She did violate #2 but seems to adhere to #3.

      Having somebody on the board who isn’t using the position for self-promotion is good, in my opinion. Whether her heavy handed behavior overwhelms her lack of self-promotion is a fair question.

      However, I wonder how many board members just sit at the meetings and rubber stamp whatever the university administration wants to do. How many are using their position on the board to prepare themselves for some bigger political play?

  7. It’s hard to imagine a higher risk/lower reward endeavor than terminating the contract of a state university president. There is a reason that boards so rarely do this, and UVA’s experience serves up that reason. Dragas saw a value in undertaking the effort despite the certain blowback, and now wishes she’d followed Kington’s plan to hold full board vote to terminate. I’ll point out that the public would still not have access to component of closed discussion that got them there; they would see only the vote. Truth & Reconciliation hearings are not part of employee evaluations in our nation, there will never be public complaining by a board member about a sitting president. Dragas didn’t write the manual that the BOV is handed (though she has now revised it), she availed herself of the provisions therein. She didn’t choose the appointees with whom she serves, and that’s why some of them turned coat on her when outcry got uncomfortable. Not all BOV members take their posts as seriously as Dragas. Dragas has never called for dismantling of Classics or any liberal arts curricula–that rumor came from within the administration, and was apparently something under consideration by them. There is a strong boundary between what the BOV oversees, and what the administration oversees–academic content is merely a spectator sport for the BOV. I’m with Paul Goldman, I know who I’d want in a foxhole with me.

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