Mr. Youngkin, Pay Heed to Your University-Board Appointments

University of Virginia board room.

by James A. Bacon

Glenn Youngkin’s winning campaign issue in the 2020 gubernatorial election was expunging Critical Race Theory from Virginia’s public school system. An endlessly repeated trope of the Left is that CRT is an academic legal theory not taught in schools. I (and others) have explained that “CRT” is short-hand for policies based upon the precept that the nation’s institutions are systemically racist. Whatever. People will believe what they want to believe. But there’s one place where even the Left acknowledges CRT is taught… and that’s law schools. Indeed, few would dispute that CRT now saturates higher education generally.

Youngkin will have his hands full rolling back “CRT” in Virginia public K-12 schools, where the ideology is deeply entrenched in official policies, bureaucratic processes, and pervasive attitudes among teachers and administrators. It will be even more difficult rooting out this profoundly destructive ideology in Virginia’s public colleges and universities.

Making the job difficult is the governance structure of higher education in Virginia. The system is decentralized, and public higher-ed institutions enjoy tremendous autonomy. Youngkin cannot dictate his policy preferences. State government has only two tools to implement change in public colleges and universities. One is budgetary: the General Assembly provides funding to colleges and universities. The other is the power of appointment. If Youngkin is to have any impact on higher ed during his four years in office, he needs to use that power aggressively.

Virginia does exercise some oversight of higher-ed institutions at the state level. The role of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) is limited, however. The council provides state-level strategic planning, collects data, approves the introduction of new academic programs, and makes policy and budgetary recommendations. SCHEV has little power to influence the culture of Virginia’s higher-ed institutions.

If Youngkin wants to change institutional cultures, he will have to work through the boards of visitors — the higher-ed analogue to boards of directors.

in Virginia, governors appoint new board members on a rotating basis as old members’ terms expire after four years. Boards select “rectors” who are analogous to chairmen of the board of directors.

Despite the superficial similarities with corporate boards, higher-ed boards are different in important ways. Board members are not shareholders. They have no ownership stake in the enterprise, and they have no power to launch “takeovers,” as their private-sector peers can do with corporations. In other words, they have no “skin in the game.” Virginia boards are rarely fractious. Rather, board members demonstrate a go-along-to-get-along attitude, and they usually defer to university presidents. (There have been two main exceptions in recent years. Boards did force the resignations of Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia and Gene Nichols at the College of William & Mary. Sullivan was reinstated, however.)

One reason that most boards have proven an ineffectual check on presidential power is that university presidents control the flow of information to the board and set board meeting agendas. Colleges and universities are complex organisms that bear little resemblance to private-sector organizations with which most board members are familiar. New board members must ascend a steep learning curve before they can become effective. They are beholden to their presidents, CFOs and COOs for information. For the most part, they know only what university administrations spoon feed them. Furthermore, they are presented with few opportunities in board meetings to explore topics that the presidents don’t wish to discuss.

The University of Virginia is a case study in the control of information. The office of public affairs operates a slick propaganda machine, most visible in the UVA Today news website, which promulgates articles, profiles, photography, and videos. The University of Virginia Alumni Association, which in theory might present independent viewpoints, does not. The association functions as a fund-raising adjunct to the university administrationIts Virginia magazine is as slick and propagandistic as UVA Today, providing rah-rah news designed to generate alumni enthusiasm. The student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, is interested in a relatively narrow range of governance issues of interest to students, and its news and commentary is generally slanted toward the Left. The home-town newspaper, The Daily Progress, does cover highlights of UVA board meetings, but lacks the resources to do any in-depth reporting. President Jim Ryan, like presidents before him, sets the agenda for the board meetings and picks the speakers. He controls the narrative.

At the University of Virginia, five of 18 board seats expire June 30, 2022. (I’m not including in that number the seat reserved for a student representative.) Youngkin will not be able to impose his will upon the Ryan regime next year, but five new members acting in concert can make a big difference in the tenor of board meetings. The appointment of four more members in 2023 will create a near majority.

In the past, governors appointed prominent alumni to boards as a reward for campaign contributions. Whether appointed by Democratic or Republican governors, board members traditionally have had no ideological agenda. They supported the goal of university advancement, with “advancement” defined as building prestige, raising rankings, cultivating excellence, and raising money. They stood by silently as campus cultures became steadily more “woke.”

If Youngkin wants to change the direction of UVA, the Virginia Military Institute (where Governor Ralph Northam orchestrated a change in the board and the resignation of Superintendent J.H. Binford Peay III), and other higher-ed institutions, he cannot appoint go-along-to-get-alongs. He must appoint board members prepared to rock the boat, by asking tough questions and rejecting mealy-mouth answers, and by digging for information and cultivating independent information sources. Most importantly, Youngkin’s appointees must share a common conviction that Virginia universities should be centers of free inquiry, free speech, free expression, and intellectual diversity, not centers of Leftist conformity. They must be willing to be contentious, and even combative, to advance that vision.

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36 responses to “Mr. Youngkin, Pay Heed to Your University-Board Appointments”

  1. Carmen Villani Jr Avatar
    Carmen Villani Jr

    Kudos to you Jim for bringing to light this effort to control the narrative at UVA. As a VMI graduate, I feel your pain! 😀

  2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    You have two competing, contradictory ideas in this post. On the one hand, you say that boards of visitors should strive to foster “centers of free inquiry, free speech, free expression, and intellectual diversity.” Yet, on the other hand, you want Youngkin to appoint persons to the boards that will “root out” CRT from Virginia’s colleges and universities. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have boards that are supporting centers of free inquiry and, at the same time, trying to ban one path of inquiry.

    I agree with you that universities should not be centers of “leftist conformity”, but they should not be centers of conservative conformity either.

    You did a good job of laying out the issues of boards usually taking a hands off approach. There are going to be at least two obstacles to Youngkin changing that culture. First, there will be a clamoring among his top donors and supporters for appointments. It will be difficult for him to turn some of these down because he doesn’t feel they will be aggressive enough (if he is even able to discern that). Second, to become as knowledgeable as they need to be in order to challenge the presidents and staff, the board members will need to put in a significant amount of time trying to delve into the incredibly complex details of the business of higher education. Most people appointed to boards are busy, successful people who are not likely to have the time needed.

    Lastly, as far as “rooting out” CRT, you have forgotten about one hallmark of higher education–academic freedom. Board members don’t tell professors what to teach.

    1. Dick, there are no contradictions. I’m not advocating “banning” advocates of CRT. As I have explained many times on this blog, I seek a vibrant exchange of ideas. You can’t have a vibrant exchange of ideas if you “ban” left-wing views. I don’t want UVa to become a secular version of Liberty University or Regent University. I just don’t want it to become a left-wing monoculture.

      What that means in practice is to stop asking job applicants to fill out “diversity statements,” and to halt blatant indoctrination that passes for sensitivity “training,” and to exercise some intellectual affirmative action in seeking to hire faculty with a wide variety of philosophical and ideological views. I also think we need to take a good hard look at DE&I programs to see if they contribute anything useful, or if they just keep the pot of racial unrest in a steady boil.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        The truth is that DE&I are claimed to be stealth CRT.

        But again, did the current BOV – under direction from the Gov, instill CRT and ‘other’ left-wing monoculture and if they did not then why is it that we now must essentially politicize the BOV to carry out the explicit political directives of the Governor?

        Don’t we appoint the BOVs with the expectation that they are substantial and successful people of character and judgement to do that role in the first place?

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          There in lies the rub. These policies are most likely evaluated and checkedusing a whole host of tools and methods for compliance with existing codes and laws, which includes CRT, so they aren’t incorrect, just wrong.

      2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        I pretty much agree with all you have said here. However, what you said here is somewhat different from this earlier statement of yours: ” It will be even more difficult rooting out this profoundly destructive ideology [CRT] in Virginia’s public colleges and universities.”

        Also, I don’t think that boards have much of a, if any, role in the activities you outline in your second paragraph.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          First, it is NOT an ideology. CRT is an evaluation tool. Jim, like all book burners, wants a fire, not a discussion.

        2. Dick, that’s a fair comment, and I was imprecise. When I referred to “rooting out” CRT, I was thinking about rooting out its manifestations in the administration of the university — diversity statements, training/indoctrination, DE&I bureaucracies. I did not mean to imply that I would want to root out anyone who professed beliefs inspired by CRT. To repeat myself, if we want to create a vibrant intellectual experience at UVa, those who espouse CRT doctrines need to be part of the debate. But there must be a debate, not an intellectual mono-culture where dissenting views are suppressed.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            ” When I referred to “rooting out” CRT, I was thinking about rooting out its manifestations in the administration of the university — diversity statements, training/indoctrination, DE&I bureaucracies.”

            so we actually do explicitly equivalence DEI with CRT?

            So, let me understand. You want the BOV to dictate to the University what they can do and not with regard to DEI?

            Is this something the BOVs normally do? i.e. dictate policies?

      3. Wahoo'74 Avatar

        Totally agree, Jim. Per your DEI point, does UVA truly need 94 DEI personnel, #2 among US universities to the University of Michigan’s 163 DEI staff, but #1 in DEI staff/student ratio given Michigan is over 2x the size of UVA:

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      He wants it rooted out. He doesn’t even know what CRT really is.

      1. Wahoo'74 Avatar

        Showing your “smartest guy in the room” hubris, Nancy dear.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Hey, even the French teach the pig what a truffle is before they have him look for it.

    3. Eric the half a troll Avatar
      Eric the half a troll

      JAB’s preemptive reply… “Whatever.”

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    This is how some folks “roll” these days. I don’t think the folks currently on those BOVs were appointed to follow some directive to instill CRT in higher ed…. yet… JAB wants essentially a litmus test to be appointed and then an expectation that the appointed ones will “do something” of which I am not exactly clear on what….

    And the dishonesty over CRT just reeks in the first place.

    A clear majority of people do believe that we still have a ways to go on telling the truth about our history and to ensure our educational institutions want diversity, and support inclusion and fair treatment of opportunities.

    so this is portrayed as CRT and even Communism by some of the same folks who support Confederate statues and other artifacts, like school and road names for racists and segregationists – the 21st century even as they argue that we are not a ‘racist’ society. Nope… those names and statues are just “history”.

    So now, they want Youngkin to “root it out” …

    going to be interesting… I’m betting Youngkin is going to see this for what it really is and disappoint some of them.

    1. Larry, you’re so clueless that there is no point whatsoever in engaging with you.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        but you did…. enough to insult…. that’s you and your values…showing.. !!!

      2. If you block Larry and Nancy, the comment section is much more coherent and easier to follow the discussion.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          you SHOULD block those you don’t want to hear… I think even JAB does it but then he can’t resist the occasional insult from time to time….either… 😉

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      What do “Stop CRT” and “Stop the Steal” have in common? Everything, starting with no basis in fact.

      Look, Jim will be the first to admit that America would have been better off had slavery, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, the Wobbly Massacre, Matewan, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment, and quota-based immigration, e.g. 1924 Immigration Act that was prejudicial to non-Nordic Europeans, never existed, so pretending they didn’t is the next best thing.

      If you don’t teach about it, then did it ever really happen?

      Isn’t it better to examine Richmond City Schools and wonder what’s wrong, than to consider the effects of Red Lining? Just ignore it, and it’s not a cause. Nothing at all like Detroit’s schools.

  4. Jake Spivey Avatar
    Jake Spivey

    Completely agree. Gov. Youngkin will over the course of his term have to replace 10 members of VMI’s BoV. He’ll have the opportunity to replace the other six members whose terms are eligible for re-appointment. Not since Sam Witt ’58 has the VMI BoV had a Board President willing to instruct the Superintendent that it’s the Board who makes the Institute’s policies. They design and prodiuce the plan. Implementing the plan, accomplishing the mission, to educate young women and men, that’s the job of the superintendent. He works for them, not the other way around. With all due respect to Josiah Bunting and Binnie Peay, the situation JB describes at UVA is nearly identical to what is happening at VMI. This is principally because Coonman, in his quest for racial redemption, appointed and re-appointed individuals who are wholly unfamiliar with the requirements of how a modern university operates. Similarly, younger Board members, particularly non-alumni are, I believe, fearful of bucking the Supterintendent. These men were as MG Wins is, thoughtful, successful, decorated, intelligent General officers.
    VMI’s Alumni Agencies is also poorly lead in certain quarters. It’s Alumni Association exerts no allegiance to the alumni, instead “walking in step” with the Institute. As the posts at Bacon’s Rebellion have catalogued, not all alumni think that is the proper course to take.
    The dynamics at the Institute must change.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      I suspect Youngkin has been personally approached by hundreds interested in these jobs already, with more queries pouring in through channels. No danger it would not be a focus…. 🙂

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        plum assignments – yes… political ?

        Helen D types?

    2. YellowstoneBound1948 Avatar

      An outstanding entry, Mr. Spivey. I endorse all points generally, and one point specifically: The total collapse of the VMI Alumni Association as the near-exclusive advocate for the alumni. The Alumni Association is missing in action. The President of the Association issued one tepid letter last summer assuring the alumni that the Association was monitoring the situation. What rot. The Alumni Association has, in fact, ceded all of its power to something called the “VMI Agencies,” and the once all-powerful Association is now just one of these so-called agencies and, to be brutally honest, the agency that is evidently subservient to all the others.

      The alumni have absolutely no advocate on campus. And gentle readers, let me tell you something else: The minions are screening the Superintendent’s mail. He isn’t seeing any of it, unless it is fawning.

      I knew Harry Easterly, Grover Outland, Harry Lee, Pete Cox — oh yes, Pete Cox — all of them Presidents of the VMI Alumni Association, and they must be spinning in their graves at the emasculation of the VMI Alumni Association, Inc.

      1. Jake Spivey Avatar
        Jake Spivey

        Yellowstone, You are correct. During the Alumni association’s (lower class for effect) February townhall (online) the Agencies CEO and the Association’s COO were specifically asked about the due dates for interim reporting requirements by Barnes & Thornburg (the investigation was approx 30-45 days old by then). Neither one of them had bothered to familiarize themselves with the investigation’s requirements to see if the Association or the Agencies were required to respond in anyway, even though the charter for B&T clearly stated VMI’s alumni-affiliated groups were expected to support the investigation.
        Thankfully, one of those individuals has “retired”. The other guy had better be working on his resume. I know a growing number of alumni who have had it with his “performance,” telling class agents how, when and where their reunions will be conducted, treating alumni hall as his personal AirBnB, witholding survey data from the alumni, and issuing misleading statements.
        PS: General Cox was an awesome BoV president as was Harry Lee (whose signature is on my sheepskin – take that! PETA).

      2. Wahoo'74 Avatar

        Yellowstone, one slight correction. I am a good pal of Grover Outland. He is most decidedly not “spinning in his grave” but alive and kicking. I suspect he is on the short list for future VMI Board appointments….at least I hope so.

        As for VMI alumnus Governor Northam, is it possible for alumni/ae to initiate a non-binding vote to have his degree expunged from the VMI records, much like W&L has done with Robert E. Lee…..except there it’s official since his and Washington’s images are permanently removed from future W&L diplomas, his name from the Chapel.

    3. Wahoo'74 Avatar

      Spot on, Jack. You nailed it.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    Glenn Youngkin should throw the old playbook out. High levels of campaign donations should disqualify a person from being appointed to a public college or university board. At least one board member should be a sitting member of the House of Delegates or State Senate. Blue collar people like firemen, police officers, school teachers, carpenters, etc should be on these college boards.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Should? $1 to your dime, he won’t. He will be guided by the experienced.

  6. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    And NO CRT! Not even in the law schools where it is, will be, a legitimate tool to evaluate the effects, intended an unintended, of laws on various groups and intersections of those groups.


  7. Here is an interesting wrinkle on the story. I have been informed of the existence of an obscure body called the Virginia Commission on Higher Education Board Appointments.

    The purpose of the commission, according to its official description, is to “develop and implement a process for evaluating potential appointees to higher education governing boards, based on substantive qualifications, including merit and experience and make recommendations to the Governor at least 30 days prior to the expiration of terms for which recommendations have been requested to fill vacancies on higher education governing boards.”

    The commission has eight members, including six non-legislative members. The composition is described here:

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Youngkin has one term, right?

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        You’ll be astounded at the damage wrought in just one year.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Kinda like the Bar Association and recommendations for judges, or the rest of the informal approach taken in DC for selection by the DoJ. Doesn’t surprise you that even without an official prescription for such a board that one would form, does it? I would suppose that governors and the president could easily go around such processes and appoint completely unqualified people to important jobs.

      This is Virginnie/’Merica.

  8. Merchantseamen Avatar

    Youngkin will roll over. Just like the mandate thingy. Yes I voted for him but held my nose when I did. Could not have that carpetbagger back in the mansion.

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