The Jaw Dropping Political Contributions of UVa’s Board of Visitors

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.

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19 responses to “The Jaw Dropping Political Contributions of UVa’s Board of Visitors

  1. 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.

    Don, let me correct your misperception. I thought no such thing. Indeed, I find such a scenario highly improbable absent a full-scale alumni revolt. I published the Murray/Ryan letter to provide a full and fair accounting of the controversy. It should be obvious by my other posts that I am sympathetic to the brewing alumni insurrection. However, I am dedicated to exploring all perspectives on this blog. The newspapers have not seen fit to cover this story, so that leaves Bacon’s Rebellion as the publication of record.

    • Well, I did say it was my interpretation. It was also somewhat tongue in cheek … ” … rise up with indignant fury …”.

      I went back and re-read your article. Nowhere do you call into question the likelihood of the BoV doing anything but supporting Ryan. A casual reader could be forgiven for thinking that you actually thought the BoV might act.

      I know you are sympathetic to the brewing alumni insurrection although the article in question doesn’t make that clear. But that’s not the point. I can’t recall you ever writing about the value (or lack thereof) of the BoV in representing the people of Virginia as a governance organization. Given that, you might well believe that the (presumably liberal) BoV would do something other than agree with the obviously liberal James Ryan.

      You also missed a seeming contradiction.

      1) “Simply put, there are no exceptions to the protections afforded by the First Amendment against state attempts to regulate political speech,” says the letter signed by Rector James B. Murray Jr. “We are required to comply with the law, and the law is very clear.”

      2) “The UVa administration has committed to review and clarify appropriate regulation of the Lawn before the next academic year.”

      If the law is very clear and there are no exceptions then what is the administration going to review and clarify? Sounds like the administration is trying to mollify the alumni by promising to do something they have no intention of doing.

      • I totally agree — that IS a contradiction. Ryan and the BoV should be called on it.

        • It is not necessarily a contradiction. The university may be able to prohibit any signs on the doors of the rooms on the Lawn. There could be legally defensible reasons for this, i.e. protecting the historical integrity of the Lawn.

          What it cannot prohibit some signs based on the university’s objections to the words used on the signs.

          • TooManyTaxes

            Could a student put up a BLM sign? What would the response be? How about a Biden-Harris sign? And she’s a bona fide religious bigot.

  2. This is only “jaw dropping” for those unfamiliar with the Virginia Way.

    • I agree but you’d be amazed how many Virginians, especially in Northern Virginia, are unfamiliar with the Virginia Way.

      I don’t even care if our state politicians use appointment to the UVa Board of Visitors as repayment for large donations. Fine. Schedule the cocktail parties and carry on. However, recent years have not been kind to dear old UVa. Dropping in the ratings, endless tuition hikes well beyond the rate of inflation, a student athlete murdering his student-athlete girlfriend, the shutdown of private fraternities over a fabricated rape allegation, the slush fund.

      Someone needs to provide some independent oversight and I have very serious reservations about a Board of Visitors which seems to have making large political donations to Democrats as a pre-requisite as the right group to provide that oversight.

      UVa is property of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Our mindless state politicians should constitute the best oversight organization they can muster regardless of how much money the candidates have poured into Democrat pockets. Either reform the way the Board of Visitors is chosen or create a new oversight organization where competence is the only criterion for selection.

      • “I don’t even care if our state politicians use appointment to the UVa Board of Visitors as repayment for large donations. ”

        Like Dragas?

        • Yes, like Dragas. She and her companies poured money into Virginia politicians’ pockets too. However, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that she personally donated more money to Democrats than Republicans. So, guess who appointed her? Little Timmy Kaine, the same guy who took and $18,000 gift of a free stay at a private Caribbean island from the current Rector of the Board of Visitors. Disgusting.

          If our politicians want to have some kind of honorary committee and use positions on that committee to appoint donors – fine. That committee can review school fight songs and mascots. But there needs to be a real independent organization providing oversight to UVa where the people in that organization represent the diversity of UVA alumni (at least) and are chosen based their ability to contribute to the governance of UVa.

          Diversity includes occupations. Where are the teachers? Where are the nurses? Where are the military officers? Where are the salesmen? None of them make enough to buy a seat on the BoV.

          A Board of Visitors dominated by multi-millionaire big time political donors is a disgrace. Merit based appointments only!

  3. Great job D.J.

  4. It’s only called the “Virginia Way” because they landed at Cape Henry and not Cape Henlopen. Otherwise, it would be the Delaware Way.

    No wait, it would still be the Virginia Way; it’s just that Delaware would be Virginia. Then Maryland would be Tennessee. No change there.

  5. It is not surprising that the board members have been political donors. Anyone who has been around Virginia government knows that governors reward political donors and supporters with board appointments. The appointments to university boards of visitors are some of the most sought after and prized. That being said, I commend you for the time and effort you put into documenting this situation. The amounts involved are enlightening. (One money flow you left out is that of donations to the university itself.)

    It is also not surprising that most of the donations have been to Democrats. After all, since 1997, there have been 7 governors and four of those were Democrats. Furthermore, the first two governors (Allen and Gilmore) during that time span were Republicans. There was only one Republican governor (McDonnell) during the later period when races have been much more expensive and a lot more money was involved. To the winner goes the spoils.

    The myth is that, because the persons appointed to boards of visitors are successful and accomplished, primarily in business, they will bring their business and managerial acumen to the task of governing colleges and universities. The truth is that these are usually busy people and their board service is sort of incidental. They are dependent on the institution’s administration to furnish them with information. Don is right; they generally live in, and are familiar with, a world that is far-removed from the world in which many of the students in their universities come from. They usually have little or no reason or inclination to question what they are presented with. (It is not dissimilar to the role of corporate boards.)

    I would say that these people would be better equipped and able to question the administration than Don’s plumber would be. They just don’t do it.

  6. These BOV members do have fiduciary responsibility and personal liability, and most of them take it seriously. They are probably no more captive of the management than board members in corporate situations. I don’t see a lot of poor people or average joes with no political connections on Dow or Fortune 500 boards. The directly reported political giving is the tip of the iceberg, and the expectation is they also give to the schools.

    Some people get on largely because of the political connections without having made major financial donations. When I got on SCHEV, I would resemble that remark…’Course TMac took me right the hell off without a second term, too.

    • … and here I thought the real purpose (not the official purpose) of serving on the BOD for most non-profits was to funnel money, directly or indirectly, to the organization’s bureaucracy

    • There are serious requirements to sit on the board of a publicly traded corporation, especially the audit committee. Presumably the corollary of political donations to Virginia pols for the BoV would be shares held by public board members. I guess, if there is any corollary. Large corporations rarely have any shareholders large enough to vote themselves a board seat. The boards are chosen based on merit. I’ve worked extensively with two large publicly traded boards of directors, In both cases, selection to the board was a deadly serious undertaking where the ability to contribute to governance was the overwhelming selection criteria. Both boards had CEOs of other companies that had the managerial and industry expertise to contribute. Both boards also had non-millionaire members who had areas of specific expertise – for example, college professors.

      Any corporate board that fired the CEO (and it happens a lot) would not have been overruled by anybody. The BoV’s inability to make their dismissal of Teresa Sullivan stick proved that they were nothing like a corporate board. Assuming that board, comprised mainly of major contributors. provides effective oversight is an illusion.

  7. Sounds like the behavior of a private university. Didn’t all you conservatives want to privatize UVA?

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