What would T.J. say?

by James A. Bacon

Thanks to $50,000 in donations, Jeffrey C. Walker, a wealthy former COO of a New York private-equity firm, apparently has induced gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe to modify his stance regarding appointments to the University of Virginia Board of Visitors. The strong impression created by the revelation, first reported by the Washington Post, is that McAuliffe’s views are highly malleable in the presence of money.

Predictably, the Cuccinelli campaign pounced: “Today’s report that Terry McAuliffe immediately changed his higher education policy after receiving $50,000 in contributions from a New York donor is the perfect case study of what Virginia would look like if he’s elected,” said Chris LaCivita, chief strategist  for the Cuccinelli campaign. “If that were to occur, a gigantic ‘For Sale’ sign would immediately be placed in front of the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond.”

McAuliffe deserves whatever skewering he gets, but the WaPo has revealed an even bigger issue. Wealthy UVa alumni seem to believe that the entire Virginia political system is up for sale.  While Walker happens to be a big donor to Democrats, he was recruiting wealthy Republican donors as well to “reach out” to the Cuccinelli campaign. (Good luck with that now.)

The underlying issue is governance at UVa. Last week, the WaPo reported that wealthy UVa alumni were lobbying gubernatorial candidates with goal of having at least 8 of 17 voting members of the Board of Visitors selected from a candidate pool assembled by UVa alumni and supporters instead of the usual political criteria. Reports Jenna Johnson:

This is just one step that the coalition wants to take to fix what it believes are major dysfunctions at the university, some of which contributed to last summer’s leadership crisis, according to council documents obtained this week by The Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request. Some members also believe that for U-Va. to have a “solid financial model,” the elite flagship university must raise in-state tuition and push the state for more funding for student aid.

Those goals sound remarkably similar to those floated in a university vision document published recently by the UVa administration. That document called for a “new contract” between the university and the Commonwealth of Virginia, a more “professional” board, more out-of-state students, and eliminating the tuition discounts for in-state students, all in the name of pursuing excellence. (See “UVa’s New Vision as Autonomous University.”)

According to emails uncovered by the WaPo under the Freedom of Information Act, Walker and two other prominent Wahoo alumni, Paul Tudor Jones and Lee Ainslie, spoke with McAuliffe and his policy director Evan Feinman about governance reform at UVa.

McAuliffe indicated that he didn’t approve of the current system and that he definitely would source BoV candidates based upon the recommendations of the UVa community. Feinman later told Walker that the campaign had added a new position to McAuliffe’s list of education-related proposals: “It is critically important that alumni, staff, students and other members of college and university communities are involved in the selection of their governing boards. The Governor should solicit and respect slates of nominees from college and university communities when filling board slots.”

Walker, who had made a previous $25,000 donation, then contributed another $25,000 to the McAuliffe campaign.

As a UVa alumnus, I have been somewhat sympathetic to the idea of letting UVa go private. Although I would prefer Mr. Jefferson’s university to remain a preeminent state institution of higher education, I realize that the administration, the faculty and many alumni are chafing against the restrictions imposed by the state. Why fight it? Let UVa do its thing, and let the state reinvest the $130 million it provides UVa each year in other higher-ed initiatives.

But I find it reprehensible when wealthy out-of-state alumni throw around huge amounts of cash to buy the political influence it takes to carry out their agenda. I think it will rub a lot of other Virginians the wrong way, too.

By the way, kudos to the WaPo’s Johnson for dogging the UVa story.

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16 responses to “Up for Sale”

  1. Bacon, Bacon, Bacon. This is significant?

    1. Of course not! It doesn’t involve a Republican.

    2. Richard, You are a UVa alumnus. You *don’t* find it significant?

      I’d bet you would if Ken Cuccinelli was the one modifying his campaign platform at the request of a major donor.

      1. I don’t find it significant that the McAuliffe campaign took money from a rich UVa alumnus, listened to him, and made changes that he thought made sense.

        Cuccinelli has done nothing in his career except run for office as the worst kind of populist. It’s laughable to compare this to Cuccinelli’s dealings with Starr (cash payments directly to his bank account!) and the coal companies, and his running for governor while continuing to be paid by the Commonwealth as attorney general. He’s shown that he is in politics for the money.

        So far as the University, Cuccinelli has been antithetical to it and its interests at every opportunity: attacking the University using government money with his ridiculous and wasteful posturing on global climate change, and his finding that the University can’t establish nondiscrimination rules to protect LGBT students. He’s anti-science and anti-intellectual, and I shudder to think who among his big donors he would name to the Board of Visitors should he become governor.

        1. James Cohen Avatar
          James Cohen

          Helen Dragas was right all along… You people have an opportunity to either be reasonable or continue to deny Ms. Dragas detailed analysis and effort to make a course correction for the good of UVA.

          1. “you people” .. hmm… 😉 – for the record, I think Ms. Dragas largely has it right but she’s lousy at “educating” her fellow BOV much less the current leadership at UVA.

            but the fact that she donated money to the same political folks who appointed her – is troubling to me.

            I think we should EXCLUDE ANYONE from being appointed to ANY position if they contributed money to the folks who would appoint.

            In fact, I’d thoroughly VETT the BOV to ensure that they 1. have expertise in academia or business and 2. have performance objectives that they have to meet or get tossed.

  2. Breckinridge Avatar

    It is hugely significant. Virginia’s state university system is by far the most important asset owned by the state, built up in the case of the University of Virginia by almost two centuries of public investment (along with private, as well.) Despite the constant whining from the schools, the state does invest more than $1.5 billion taxpayer dollars in operations and hundreds of millions more in capital expenditures ANNUALLY. A concerted and not-even-hidden effort to buy the attention of either (or both) candidates for Governor in support of some less-than-open agenda is just one more example of money driving the train in Virginia and the media sleeping on the tracks.

    The board appointment process could be changed but you don’t need to change it if the Governor just surrenders his prerogative to others, and lets the board become self-selecting. That is what it appears they want — an inbred self-selected board. The board process is open to reform. Perhaps the terms should be six or eight years to reduce turnover, and perhaps people who are less than diligent should be removed for cause.

    But the people own these schools. Each of us has a stake in the Lawn, and the Wren Building and all that horrid Hokie Stone and all the other 12 colleges and 23 community colleges. The visitors may not accept the responsibility to represent the public when they take those jobs, but that is who they ultimately work for and it is our fault for letting them forget it.

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    This kind of stuff belongs on Bearing Drift or BVBL.Net. Apparently, the question of whether this new policy approach is a good idea need not be discussed.

    The more desperate the Cuccinelli supporters become the more erratic their behavior. Now even normally logical Jim Bacon is willing to by pass the policy question just to “go negative”.

    Of course the present approach doesn’t work. How many fiascoes like the Teresa Sullivan assassination – resignation – reinstatement do we have to witness before looking for a better way.

    The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond shirks their elected duty regarding Virginia’s state universities and colleges by saying they don’t want to politicize the process. Then, that same group rubber stamps every political appointment to the various Boards of Visitors that a succession of one term governors puts in front of them.

    Meanwhile UVA continues to drop steadily in the rankings while becoming ever more unaffordable.

    Yeah, let’s not do anything!

    As for the “out-of-state alumni” quackery – spare me! These people went to the University of Virginia. These people have donated their time and money to the University of Virginia. The fact that they now live outside the boundaries of the Commonwealth of Virginia could not possibly be less relevant.

    Labor Day has come and gone, Jim. Time to look at the substance rather than the form of these candidates.

  4. I was gonna say….. the Cuccinelli apologists are now getting desperate….

    nothing says it better than a sitting Attorney General taking gifts from a guy with business and legal issues in front of the state…

    how many appointed BOV in Virginia donated to the Gov ?

    wanna totally outlaw the practice and say anyone who donates is automatically excluded from ANY appointments including BOV?

    I thought so….

    so this is the excuse the folks who want to vote for Cuccinelli are going to use:

    “Sure Cuccinelli took money, but so did McAuliffe so vote the way you normally would”.

    as predicted – the GOP base is going to vote for Cuccinelli – they just have to get to a good rationalization point.

  5. The more I think about it – the more I like it – if you donate to a politician – it automatically rules you out from ANY appointed position – period.

    why not?

  6. Pat Robertson’s influence on UVa’s Board of Visitors:
    New evidence of Pat Robertson’s misuse of his organization’s tax-exempt status has emerged in “Mission Congo,” see below.
    Robertson helped establish the religious right, back when he ran for GOP’s Presidential nomination in 1986. He remains a political force and has given big dollar support, esp. to his protege’ and Regent U. law graduate, Governor Robert McDonnell, at the base of the GOP in Virginia. Other bizarre, quasi-religious GOP candidates’ pronouncements–such as Cuccinelli and that Lt. Gov. candidate, may be found to have Robertson’s style-marks on them.
    “Mission Congo,” is a new documentary directed by Lara Zizic and David Turner that alleges that Virginia Beach televangelist Pat Robertson exploited a 1990s crisis in Rwanda by diverting facilities of his Operation Blessing charity organization to an African diamond mining venture, in which Robertson had holdings.
    Let us not forget that Timothy Robertson, son of Pat R., is a member of the UVa Board of Visitors, and that the newly confirmed rector of that board, George K. Martin Esq., is also a member of the Regent U. law school board. I found Mr. Martin responsive to emails last summer when President Sullivan was under attack; however, my several attempts to communicate, civilly and amicably, with Timothy Robertson at his UVa BOV email address were ignored. Robertsons are taught that they are above public access or scrutiny; they’re such Christian solders!

    1. Tim Robertson, with Hunter Craig, were the first Visitors to turn back on their prior support for the resignation of Sullivan when the things got contentious. I also suspect that he’s been firing up the Media Studies wonk all along, a department funded largely by his father.

  7. That a pol’s position is Up For Sale may not be news any more than the classic from The Onion “Rich Guy Wins Yacht Race” but underlying this is something that absolutely is a concern–the stewardship of UVA. The interest of alums, in-state or out, is divergent from the interest of current and future students in maintaining affordable access to the school. Alums have little sense of accountability to the Commonwealth, which, although many seem to be wishing this away, is the current arrangement. I see a dim future for a school whose board is composed of myopic alums, inbred academics, and “industry experts.” With our one-term limit on Governors, I’m more comfortable with the ebb and flow of appointees, imperfect but sometimes objective, than I am with self-selected insiders.

  8. I’d rather see the appointments not be insiders but also not be politicians rewarding supporters.

    I’d actually restrict appointees to employed alumnus in the various fields – business, medical, academia, etc…

    and I’d require qualifications and performance elements.

    the problem with the current system is that some of the BOV are basically feckless seat-warmers and others – tails wagging the dog… and both are to the detriment of the purpose of the BOV – IMHO of course.

  9. Jim has it right:
    Governance reform. Alter the Board of Visitors from its roster of political appointees to members who “meet a defined set of selection criteria focused on their knowledge of an experience with major issues involving higher education (i.e. industry competence), as well as their knowledge of and experience leading and governing large, complex organizations.” While the governor would continue making the appointments, he (or she) might draw from candidates nominated by an “expert selection panel.”
    There will not be radical change in the process; our hope must be for some kind of selection criteria that are better than political favors. However, I have little faith that General Assembly will do something that’s impartial and statesmanlike. Limited vision in our GA.

  10. James Cohen Avatar
    James Cohen

    One need only to look at Stanford and then look at UVA. Ask yourself why Virginia has not kept with the program initiated by Jefferson and renewed their operational model. Jefferson would have continually done so.. This aint 1960 folks..

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