by James A. Bacon
Thanks to $50,000 in donations, Jeffrey C. Walker, a wealthy former COO of a New York private-equity firm, apparently has induced gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe to modify his stance regarding appointments to the University of Virginia Board of Visitors. The strong impression created by the revelation, first reported by the Washington Post, is that McAuliffe’s views are highly malleable in the presence of money.
Predictably, the Cuccinelli campaign pounced: “Today’s report that Terry McAuliffe immediately changed his higher education policy after receiving $50,000 in contributions from a New York donor is the perfect case study of what Virginia would look like if he’s elected,” said Chris LaCivita, chief strategist for the Cuccinelli campaign. “If that were to occur, a gigantic ‘For Sale’ sign would immediately be placed in front of the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond.”
McAuliffe deserves whatever skewering he gets, but the WaPo has revealed an even bigger issue. Wealthy UVa alumni seem to believe that the entire Virginia political system is up for sale. While Walker happens to be a big donor to Democrats, he was recruiting wealthy Republican donors as well to “reach out” to the Cuccinelli campaign. (Good luck with that now.)
The underlying issue is governance at UVa. Last week, the WaPo reported that wealthy UVa alumni were lobbying gubernatorial candidates with goal of having at least 8 of 17 voting members of the Board of Visitors selected from a candidate pool assembled by UVa alumni and supporters instead of the usual political criteria. Reports Jenna Johnson:
This is just one step that the coalition wants to take to fix what it believes are major dysfunctions at the university, some of which contributed to last summer’s leadership crisis, according to council documents obtained this week by The Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request. Some members also believe that for U-Va. to have a “solid financial model,” the elite flagship university must raise in-state tuition and push the state for more funding for student aid.
Those goals sound remarkably similar to those floated in a university vision document published recently by the UVa administration. That document called for a “new contract” between the university and the Commonwealth of Virginia, a more “professional” board, more out-of-state students, and eliminating the tuition discounts for in-state students, all in the name of pursuing excellence. (See “UVa’s New Vision as Autonomous University.”)
According to emails uncovered by the WaPo under the Freedom of Information Act, Walker and two other prominent Wahoo alumni, Paul Tudor Jones and Lee Ainslie, spoke with McAuliffe and his policy director Evan Feinman about governance reform at UVa.
McAuliffe indicated that he didn’t approve of the current system and that he definitely would source BoV candidates based upon the recommendations of the UVa community. Feinman later told Walker that the campaign had added a new position to McAuliffe’s list of education-related proposals: “It is critically important that alumni, staff, students and other members of college and university communities are involved in the selection of their governing boards. The Governor should solicit and respect slates of nominees from college and university communities when filling board slots.”
Walker, who had made a previous $25,000 donation, then contributed another $25,000 to the McAuliffe campaign.
As a UVa alumnus, I have been somewhat sympathetic to the idea of letting UVa go private. Although I would prefer Mr. Jefferson’s university to remain a preeminent state institution of higher education, I realize that the administration, the faculty and many alumni are chafing against the restrictions imposed by the state. Why fight it? Let UVa do its thing, and let the state reinvest the $130 million it provides UVa each year in other higher-ed initiatives.
But I find it reprehensible when wealthy out-of-state alumni throw around huge amounts of cash to buy the political influence it takes to carry out their agenda. I think it will rub a lot of other Virginians the wrong way, too.
By the way, kudos to the WaPo’s Johnson for dogging the UVa story.