Most Virginia Public Universities Score Low in Board Accountability

by James A. Bacon

Five Virginia universities score an “F” in a rating of governing board accountability and transparency released today by the Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust. They include Virginia Tech, James Madison University, Virginia Military Institute, Virginia State University and Longwood University.

George Mason University set the pace for board accountability with a B+. The University of Virginia scored a B.

The report was released in conjunction with the filing of a bill, HB 2120, which would provide greater public access to university board records, to meetings and even to board members. The bill would ensure that students, parents and the public could view board meetings remotely, email board members, and provide public comments before major board decisions are made, not just when tuition & fees are discussed.

“Service on a Board of Visitors for a Virginia public university is a highly coveted political appointment, but it is also a position of serious responsibility,” said Del. Mark Keam, D-Vienna, who sponsored the bill.

“Their decisions impact the lives of countless students, faculty, staff, and the broader university communities,” Keam said. “At a time when the public’s trust in our institutions is frail and taxpayers demand more from government, I believe our colleges and universities must reassure their stakeholders that they are committed to the highest standards of public service.”

Partners reviewed historic meeting records, board bylaws and policies, board notices, and communications channels, and then graded each institution on its performance in three areas: board transparency, member accessibility, and board receptiveness. To ensure accuracy, Partners solicited feedback from each institution.

Critics have noted that boards of visitors in Virginia routinely rubber stamp the recommendations of university presidents, who dominate boards through flattery, control over meeting agendas and information, and applying peer pressure on board members who ask too many questions. Meetings typically cover a lot of topics, leaving no time for extended discussion and even less for public input. As a consequence boards rarely exercise the kind of oversight they were designed to do.

In the past, newspapers often covered the board meetings of universities in their circulation areas, highlighting the more controversial issues, but cutbacks in newsroom staffs have scaled back even that source of accountability.

A rare exception last year was an expose by a student newspaper, The Breeze at JMU, which laid out details of how President Jonathan Alger had manipulated board members. Reported the Breeze:

Before each of the public meetings, Alger and one other JMU higher-up — oftentimes Vice President for Access and Enrollment Management and Secretary to the Board of Visitors Donna Harper — meet with two Board members at a time for a conversation about where the Board members stand on each issue to be addressed at the public meetings. While each Board member only hears the perspective of the other member in their two-member call, the set of calls allows Alger the opportunity to observe where each member — and therefore, the BOV as a whole — sits on each issue before walking into the public meetings.

Holding discussions with two board members at a time skirted Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, which requires any meeting of three or more members of an official public body to be held as open meetings.

The Partners for College Affordability have recommended the adoption of the following policies and practices:

  1. Include board member biographies on the board website.
  2. Make all pre-meeting board materials available to the public.
  3. Post or cross-post all meeting notices/advisories in a prominent location on the board website.
  4. Provide options to observe all board meetings by live-stream and dial-in.
  5. Post all meeting video recordings on the board website.
  6. List public contact information for each board member, including email addresses.
  7. Accept verbal public comment on all board agenda items and topics during all meetings of the full board and committees.
  8. Accept written public comment on all board agenda items and topics on a rolling basis.
  9. Distribute all written comments received to all board members.
  10. Promote opportunities for public comment through all institutional communication channels and social media platforms.