By Peter Galuszka

An early summer calm has settled on the “The Lawn” at the University of Virginia following 16 days of pointless controversy that damaged the school’s reputation and raised serious questions about how Mr. Jefferson’s school should be run.

The most important issues wafting up from the now-quiet battleground are not really whether there is an “existential threat” to the school or if the “incremental” approach to dealing with its problems is the best way.

Issues surrounding online education that have been around for years do not really raise the specter of the great school being swept away in a tsunami of technological changes. Budget problems remain, but the real issue is why the General Assembly spends so little and gets so much rather than the opposite at least when you look at how other public school systems in North Carolina and Maryland do it. Despite what you read on this blog, cheap-o Virginia does get a lot for its little money.

The critical point is who these boards of visitors are, where they come from, what is their experience and how the get chosen. Being Virginia, there is a natural and tendency to assume that only people with business backgrounds and who have money have the right and the brains to be on boards. Women and men of science, the arts, education and public service need not apply. It could be that they don’t pump as much money into political campaigns.

Here are a few guidelines:

Buying Your Way on the Board

 As at any university, Virginia’s public schools have independent oversight in the form of boards of visitors appointed by governors. The system results on boards typically being made up of successful business people who are major contributors to political campaigns or to the schools. U.Va. Rector Helen  Dragas, an appointee of former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine, has given more than $70,000 for mostly Democratic campaigns since the 1990s, according to Virginia Public Access Project records.

Of the current U.Va. board of 15 members (following Kington’s resignation), eight were appointed by Kaine. After July 1, three new members will be selected by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell who also has the power to reappoint two, including Dragas.

Of the current board, 12 have business backgrounds, two are with law firms and one is former state delegate. None has a professional education or science background. Only two are female. Shoot over to the West Coast and look at the board that oversees the University of California at Berkeley, the public school Hoos like to compare themselves with. There only four board members who have strictly business background. Two are in the health field, four are in law, one is in the arts, two in the media and one in public service. How about Harvard? Four are in business, five are in education, and one is in public service. These two schools have a far more varied board, compared to Virginia’s business-heavy one.

The political nature of Virginia’s public university boards can make them more sensitive to political rather than educational or managerial problems. In 2005, for instance, Gene Nichols, a noted law professor, became president of the College of William & Mary. Yet he was soon removed because he was deemed too politically and culturally liberal by the school’s board. He allowed a “sex workers” exhibition to be displayed and drew wrath when he had ordered a crucifix removed from the altar at Wren Building Chapel when non-Christian events were scheduled. His ouster was secured when Jim McGlothlin, a wealth, conservative alumnus and coal baron, withdrew a $12 million donation to the school.

The Corporate Approach May Not Work

 Another problem occurs when a business-heavy board tries to apply corporate-based decision making to schools. That may have been part of problem with Dragas who seemed comfortable with making difficult decisions unilaterally at her construction firm, such as one to replace shoddy, imported drywall free of charge to customers. That skill may not have been transferrable to U.Va. where she drew criticism for embracing what she thought was dramatic new strategy in online education without informing or involving much of the university community. Sullivan said: “Corporate-style, to-down leadership does not work at a great university. Sustained change with buy in does work.”

Built In Conflicts of Interest

A classic board problem is that if they must face problems with a college president, it could blowback on them because they often were the ones who hired that top administrator.  Such was the case in 2009 when the VCU board hired Michael Rao, the president of Central Michigan State University, to head VCU.

Rao ran into trouble in late 2010 when it was revealed that he had required his staff to sign confidentiality agreements that they would not reveal anything about Rao or his family. He also was criticized for letting his wife, Monica, who had a minor job at VCU, act as his emissary in personnel matters.

VCU’s board hired an outside consultant who also had been involved in Rao’s hiring and after closed-door meetings with the president, decided to keep him and later extend his contract with a pay hike.

Handling Damage Control

The Rao controversy never generated the heat that firing Sullivan has. The U.Va. board has been chided for keeping its anti-Sullivan proceedings secret and possibly holding an illegal meeting to affect her departure. The full board never met to dismiss Sullivan and only three met with her and told her to resign because they had the board votes to get rid of her. The facts outraged the U.Va. community which is proud of its unique honor code.  Dragas drew further fire for her not explaining why she made her move, sparking more rumors.

Dragas hired the major public relations firm of Hill & Knowlton to handle the fallout from Sullivan’s departure, according to her emails. The Richmond Times-Dispatch later reported that Thomas Ferrell, head of the powerful utility Dominion Resources and a former U.Va. rector, was dispatching two top public relations experts to help the U.Va. board handle damage control. Ferrell, a close ally of Gov. McDonnell, is on McDonnell’s board to explore higher education. Why they were needed was never explained. A U.Va. spokeswoman says any public relations spending will come from non-public funds.

The question remains unexplained what Sullivan allegedly did to merit dismissal. At other state universities, boards seemed to have cause to make changes. At the University of Mary Washington, for example, the board forced out president William J. Frawley after he was charged with two DUIs within two days of each other in 2010. Even in the Rao matter, there seemed to be cause to investigate.

. Regardless of whether Sullivan is reinstated or not, the fallout from Dragas’ bungled coup will have far-reaching impacts. It has damaged the reputation of a prominent school and could affect its accreditation. The affair is certain to affect upcoming political races, such as Tim Kaine’s attempt to win a U.S. Senate seat.

Meanwhile, the larger issues confronting the state’s public universities remain unaddressed. Issue One should be reassessing how boards are selected, not worrying about the “existential” mumbo-jumbo of getting some slick new online course program.

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  1. Overall, a pretty thoughtful piece, Peter. You make good points regarding the qualifications we should expect of BoV appointees and the procedure by which Sullivan was fired.

    My main point of disagreement is your depiction of the way you dismiss talk of an “existential threat” to the university as “mumbo jumbo,” which implies not only that the phrase may be over-wrought but that there is no basis for concern whatsoever, and your summary dismissal of the online education issue as “getting some slick new online course program.” The latter remark suggests that you have no idea what the debate is about.

  2. larryg Avatar

    Yes, agree. Good Job!

    I AGREE that there need to be legitimate stakeholders on the BOV – and perhaps they should form the majority with the minority being business folks but I also believe the University has to be run on a cost-effective basis and must live within it’s means rather than look for “more money”. We have to stop this idea that we “cannot afford” to “cut”. At the end of the day, we cannot continue to spend more and more money… no matter the reason.

    I agree that “existential” is the word that changed the dynamics and I agree Peter – using this word to describe something that has been at least a decade-long slow-motion deceptiveness ESPECIALLY with it targeted at the current President was DUMB. Let me repeat that – D U M B.

    Instead of pulling up britches and engaging the community with this “news”, Dragan pulls out the old war club and proceeds to a bloody spectacle of one person – the President to sound the clarion bell of change.

    D U M B.

    If you ever wanted a better way to misdirect… this was it.

    All the BOV had to really do was make their list …and promote it … from within and outside the community to include the Gov and the GA and to stick to their knitting on it.

    Dragas acting extremely unprofessionally and incompetently. She may be a good business woman but she still got some learning to do on how to effect change at a major University.

    I don’t even give her points for bravery. This is like walking into a meeting and hitting someone up side the hand and then shouting, “we have an existential threat here”. How in Hades did this really help to move the issue?

  3. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    “What this debate is all about” is becoming increasingly clear. 1/ The University needs to to refocus its resources back onto its core mission of educating citizens. (See earlier James Bacon Post) The primary means to this end are establishing faculty compensation to rank it among the best universities in the Nation, and at the same time establish the methods to build faculty productiveness. 2/ The University community also needs to demand transparency in the running of its University. Only transparency can assure honest dialogue that achieves lasting results that positively impact real problems. Point #2 requires a culture shift. This shift is critically necessary to overcome what appears to be a largely dysfunctional community, one whose constant referrals to, and assurances of, “Trust” suggest the crying need for it. To those who argue otherwise, the question occurs: Why do you oppose transparency? What are your afraid of?

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond (c) has many groups supposedly charged with monitoring and managing higher education in the state. It seems hard to believe that the Clown Show still hasn’t made any substantive comments on whether there is an “existential crisis” or not.

    We have a governor. He sat on the sidelines for two weeks while busy with important work in Sweden and Utah. When he finally spoke it was a simple minded command for the board to “decide something” or be fired. The board was meeting on Tuesday to “decide something”. McDonnell’s righteous indignation was political theater. The fact that he was widely lauded for his “non action” is amazing. God looks out for drunks, babies and Bob McDonnell.

    There’s the State Secretary of Education and her staff. Does she think there’s an “existential crisis”? Shouldn’t she know, one way or the other? Can you imagine a similar transportation fiasco without the ever-present Sean Connaughton being “front and center”?

    There are education committees in both the House of Delegates and State Senate. 37 of our “best and brightest” are engaged on those committees. Do they think there is an “existential crisis”? Who knows? They aren’t speaking (imagine here the picture of the monkey with his hands over his mouth).

    Google “Janet Howell” & UVA. The silence is deafening.

    Almost predictably, the only Clown Show member saying anything specific is Dick Saslaw. Here’s what High Test Dickie had to say:

    “Even if Sullivan remains, Saslaw says UVA can expect hard times ahead, because all public schools in the Commonwealth have one big problem. Teresa Sullivan saw that when she took the job, nearly two years ago, and went straight to Richmond.

    “We’ll get about $8,400 per student from the state. At Michigan where I was last, we got $17,600.” Yes – Michigan, in the midst of a depression, was giving more than double the per student aid to its public universities. Maryland provides $17,620 and North Carolina sends its premiere state school – UNC-Chapel Hill – more than $26,000 per student.

    “The reason is that they have higher taxes in that state. Their roads are far superior to ours. They’re able to do a lot of things we can’t do, because there’s a flat refusal to make anybody pay for anything in this state,” said Saslaw.”.

    Saslaw’s point is simple – raise taxes. At least that’s an idea you can understand. I’ll give him that.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    “Teresa Sullivan saw that when she took the job, nearly two years ago, and went straight to Richmond.”.

    What did she do when she got there? Practice her juggling? Ride a miniature tricycle?

    Ms Sullivan: The only reason to attend a Clown Show is to laugh at the antics of the clowns.

  6. DJRippert Avatar


    You really don’t get Bacon.

    He doesn’t give a rats derriere about online education.

    Jim Bacon hates paying taxes. His time at UVA was far more heavily subsidized by the state (and the taxpayers of the day) than is the case now. So, does Jim say, “We’re under-funding higher education in Virginia, I’ll pay a bit more in taxes to make that right.”? Oh hell no! He says, “Let’s go to the videotape.”.

    You see – if Jim can convince people that cheaping out on higher education is really a technological marvel he can avoid paying reasonable taxes while also avoiding any criticism for being selfish with regard to future generations of Virginians.

    It’s the Tea Party way.

  7. Interesting ideas, Peter. How about appointing a person who is paying tuition for her/his kids? Damn few people on any of these boards realize they deal with other people’s money. Treat students and their paying parents as customers.
    And cut staff; measure the productivity of instructors and researchers. How much time do they spend teaching and engaged in research? Would an R&D company hire these people? If not, changes are in order.

  8. larryg Avatar

    re: parents on boards that spend money appropriated from others on their kids.

    been there. done that. Look at most public school systems in Va run by elected school boards.

    Do you know that Va is the ONLY state where the school board does not set a tax rate for school funding?

    I’d hate to see BOVs become official “more money, more money” advocacy groups but I will agree we do not have legitimate governance with the current BOVs. We have “nice”, “smart”, “connected” people some of whom are pretty sharp and others are chocolates in the Forest Gump Candy Box.

  9. I’m struck by all the hullabaloo about the Harvard / MIT model. First of all, anyone at anytime could check out “courses”–including resources from Harvard–from the local public library and study on their own. These are self-study materials–the students are not being “taught” by anyone at Harvard or MIT anymore than I am being taught by Plato and by a Oxford don when I open up the Dialogues with the Oxford Companion to Plato close by.

    The “Great Courses” DVD series they’re always trying to get me to buy is the same stuff–presumably that business model is now dead, and has been since iTunes University.

    Why doesn’t anybody mention iTunes U, BTW?

    Check it out if you don’t believe me. It’s as easy as–reading a book or two.

    Now I’m all for auto-didacticism, but I wish some of the folks jumping on this bandwagon had taught themselves a little about the history of education.

    What all the bull-dung is about is obviously repackaging to make money out of it–and I assume that’s why the Hedgefund boys felt Sullivan was going too slow.

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