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.