What Criteria Are We Looking For In University Board Members?

by James A. Bacon

As Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin selects cabinet members and other key members of his administration, he has more pressing concerns to occupy his attention at this moment than replacing members on Virginia’s public university boards whose terms don’t expire until June 30. But as soon as he has the opportunity to do so, he needs to give serious thought to the criteria he will use to select these new board members.

I argued recently that Youngkin should look for individuals willing to support academic freedom and oppose the excesses of the “social justice” movement in Virginia’s system of higher education. He needs pugnacious advocates willing to endure controversy, hostility and ostracism to change campus cultures that are evolving into intellectual monocultures harmful to free inquiry, free speech, and free expression.

Since posting that column, I have received feedback that I thought was worth sharing from a prominent board member of a Virginia university. He made the case that Virginia has a system in place to take some of the politics out of the selection process. With the caveat that colleges and universities have become so politicized that appointing “non-political” board members itself has the political implication of maintaining the status quo, I think my correspondent has a point. Enthusiasm for reforming a decadent academic culture is not, in and of itself, sufficient to qualify someone for a board seat.

My correspondent’s thoughts follow. He shared them privately in the hope that they would better inform me in my writing on the topic. These comments were so cogently stated that I cannot in good conscience present them as my own. I have made minor edits to make them suitable for publication. 

Once you’ve “been in the room where it happened,” it’s easy to see the impossibility of any governor building strong governing boards with no one to rely upon except the Secretary of the Commonwealth (who is invariably someone from the campaign’s fund-raising staff with zero board room experience). Whether it’s a flagship university that really needs a public company CFO to chair the finance committee, a seasoned investor to serve on an endowment committee, or a doctor to serve on the health system board; or whether it’s an historically black university that has >50% of its dorm rooms empty (yes we have that) which needs business marketing talent or cost accounting expertise, the problem is the same. The Secretary of the Commonwealth doesn’t have time to hunt for those skills, the Governor doesn’t even know they’re needed, and they’re both operating in a daily fog of influence seeking from major campaign donors. The common practice is destined to result in second-rate boards.

By way of background, the Code of Virginia provides for a Virginia Commission on Higher Education Board Appointments with the mission of evaluating potential appointees to college/university boards and the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia.

The purpose of the Commission on Higher Education Board Appointments was to short circuit this ad hoc crap game by creating a disciplined nominating process that used wise and experienced people who would go out and search for and recruit the talent that the taxpayers deserve. When properly utilized the CHEBA can give the Governor three highly qualified names for each vacancy, and the Secretary can be there, in the room, to assure that each name is from the Governor’s party and otherwise politically palatable. The Governor appoints the Commission; the Governor chooses candidates from the lists they give him, and the number of political hacks, ideologues, and rabid sports fans appointed is greatly diminished.

When recent governors ignored the commission they lost a very valuable political tool. Without the Commission there are certain very large early donors who are virtually impossible to deny. With the Commission as a screen the Governor can defer to the Code, encourage that donor to apply through the regular channels, and promise an appointment if the donor makes it through the screening process. If not, the Governor has a ready-made rationale for a lesser appointment, a dinner at the mansion or some other pay back, short of cluttering the board room of a  highly complex business where dollars and lives are at stake.

I like what I’ve seen of Youngkin, and I sincerely wish that those close to him would encourage him to treat the board appointments as he did boards at companies that Carlyle invested in. In business we recognize that every board member has deep responsibilities. These positions are never treated as simple political pawns when your own money is at stake. … You can only build great boards by announcing standards and a process to screen for them. Fortunately, state law gives Youngkin a ready made tool, if he will use it.

On the subject of the process for appointing board members, it is also worth noting an approach recommended by Virginia Military Institute alumni Carmen Villani, Henry Rogers, and Forrest Marion in a letter to Youngkin — allow alumni to have input into the selection. Here are excerpts:

During [a pre-election] interview [with Matt Daniel, chairman of the Spirit of VMI PAC], you stated that one of the first things you would do in regard to VMI would be to “assemble a group of VMI cadets and VMI alumni to sit down to hear our views.” …

We request that your review panel consist of those alumni who believe that the leadership at VMI has embarked on a course that deviates from the time-tested citizen-soldier concept based upon “content of character” and replacing it with diversity, equity, and inclusion, (DEI). Such concern focuses on protecting the VMI Experience, namely the Honor System, Class System, Regimental System and Ratline; the BOV; the negative impact CRT is more than likely having on the Corps of Cadets under the guise of DEI; the right of free speech; the necessity for a chief diversity officer; preserving a history that speaks to character, courage, leadership, and perseverance. A search for alumni to participate in such a review has already been initiated.

As for the cadet contingent, we believe the President of the Honor Court, Regimental Commander, First Class President, Rat Disciplinary Committee President, and Cadet Newspaper editor would be a great asset to the panel. In closing, we pray that under your leadership that VMI will remain VMI because as Matt Daniel so succinctly put it – “VMI IS GOOD!”