By DJ Rippert
Waiting for Godot. A recent article on this blog titled, “UVa Board Backs Ryan on Lawn Signage Issue,” seemed to suggest that The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors (BoV) was a critical link in UVa’s governance structure. My interpretation of the article was that the author (Jim Bacon) believed the BoV might rise up with indignant fury and put UVa President James Ryan in his place by insisting that a profane sign on university property be taken down. My own thinking was that such a belief was naive. I’ve always viewed UVa’s BoV as a club of well meaning rich people who were appointed to that board in appreciation for the large political donations they make rather than a serious oversight organization.
That view was reinforced in 2012 when the BoV tried to act like an honest to goodness board by ousting UVa’s underperforming president – Teresa Sullivan. Virginia’s political elite would have none of it. Republican Governor Bob McDonnell threatened to fire the entire board for having the temerity to put down their martini glasses and take action. Since that attempt at actual governance the BoV seems to have returned to its roots as an organization willing to rubber stamp whatever UVa’s leadership decides to do. The idea that the BoV might question Ryan’s acceptance of a sign on a university-owned dorm room door saying “F*** UVa” seemed far fetched to me. However, the article’s author – Jim Bacon – is wise in the ways of all things Virginia. Maybe he was right and the Board of Visitors was appointed based on their willingness to actively manage UVa rather than their political donations.
As a starting point, I decided to research the political donations of the board members. I was stunned by what I found. I defined the board by including the seventeen independent board members and the faculty representative. I did not include the student representative in the donation calculations. The 18 members of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors, their employers and their spouses have donated $35,252,122 to Virginia politicians since 1997 (when records first started being tracked). The individual board members and their spouses (to the extent I could determine their spouses) have donated $4,859,820 to the state’s political class since 1997. Their employers have donated $30,392,302 over the same period. These totals count donations to Republicans, Democrats and political organizations classified as “other” by VPAP.
There may be even more money. Most of the information on political donations by members of the Board of Visitors came from the Virginia Public Access Project website. Tallying the donations was not as straight forward an exercise as one might expect. For example, a UVa webpage dedicated to the Board of Visitors lists “C. Evans Poston, Jr” as a board member. The VPAP website shows no data for that name. Nor for “C Evans Poston.” Nor for “Evans Poston Jr”. However, “Evans Poston” brings up two donor records belonging to the board member. I counted both. The UVa website also doesn’t always make the member’s employer easy to determine. One person is simply listed as a “private investor.” A trip to LinkedIn tied that person to a company he founded that made political donations. I counted those donations. Another member donated “only” a bit over $9,000. Given the other members’ donations, that seemed suspicious. A trip to Facebook identified her husband, a lawyer, who VPAP says donated over $135,000. I counted the husband’s donations. The bottom line is that I am confident that the BoV members made the donations I am reporting but I am far less confident that all the donations made by their close relatives, former employers, etc. are in the mix.
All roads lead to Richmond. Regular readers of this blog know that Virginia is one of the very few states with no limits on donations made to state politicians. No limits for anybody – citizens, businesses, PACs or unions. That fatal flaw in our state’s governance structure is on full display with regard to UVa’s Board of Visitors. The individual board members and their spouses have donated $4,859,820 to the state’s political class since 1997. Their employers have donated $30,392,302 over the same period. For every dollar of personal donations given to Republicans $10.43 was donated to Democrats. Only one member of the board donated more to Republicans than to Democrats. The employer side of the political donation mountain was more balanced with nearly equal amounts given to Republicans and Democrats.
Who is the board supposed to represent? If race and gender were the only two measures of diversity then the UVa Board of Visitors could be considered male dominated but somewhat diverse. However, if occupation, wealth or education level constitutes diversity then this board is not diverse. The board has plenty of lawyers and investors, a couple of doctors and real estate agents but no K-12 teachers, policemen, or public defenders. Other than the faculty representative, few of the board members appear to have any substantial experience in higher education. Who is the board supposed to represent? The people of Virginia? UVa alumni? The board’s composition suggests that it represents neither of these groups. Given the amount of money most of these board members slather on Virginia politicians the board seems to be a highly educated, wealthy and politically connected organization of Democrats with the common attribute of making large political donations. Does a Virginia plumber have a stake in The University of Virginia? What if his daughter is a student there? Might the plumber be more attuned to the escalating cost of tuition than multi-millionaires who donate small fortunes to politicians? That plumber will never be on the Board of Visitors unless he hits the lottery and starts writing big checks to Democratic politicians. That’s a shame.
Have the board seats been bought? Before anybody gets their knickers in a knot, all of the board members appear to be intelligent, well educated, successful people. They all donate their time to helping UVa, so I think we can safely assume they are civic-minded people as well. But sixteen of the eighteen have made personal political contributions averaging $269,990. Six have donated over $400,000 apiece. That’s not a typical demographic for Virginians or UVa alumni. Does anybody believe this is coincidence? Is this the best Board of Visitors we can find? I’d have to say no. When making large political donations to Democrats is apparently a pre-requisite for the majority of the board a lot of talented Virginians become excluded from consideration. Virginians who could add a lot of perspective to the multi-millionaires on the board. It also yields a board that is far too cozy with Virginia politicians in general and Democrats in particular. This type of board is very unlikely to take aggressive action even if such aggressive action is in the best interest of The University of Virginia and The Commonwealth of Virginia.