“We speak a lot about responsibility and accountability in this chamber. Today we have the opportunity to make a statement, loudly and clearly, that we not only value those two principles but one that lies at the heart of Mr. Jefferson’s University – the concept of honor. The events of last spring at the University, engineered by the person before us for reappointment, placed the flagship University of the Commonwealth in the type of peril that it has not experienced since its founding in the 1830s by an act of this General Assembly. Ms. Helen Dragas was appointed to the Board in 2008. She came as a rising star, an accomplished business person, someone known for her charitable deeds and as a person who would be a guardian of the University’s Honor System, which the BOV is charged with protecting. She was touted by Democrats as someone who could run for statewide office and win.
Shortly after her appointment to the Board, another female rising star came to the University. That person was Teresa Sullivan and she was celebrated by the Board of Visitors as the person who could take the University to new heights by expanding its academic excellence while tightening an already efficient operation.
Prior to the forced resignation of President Sullivan in early June 2012, there were no rumblings of discontent, no concern evidenced by the Board of Visitors or the faculty, and only strong support from the alumni base that is so critical to the funding of the University. But everything was turned upside down on that Sunday morning when the announcement flashed across the computer screens of thousands of alumni, faculty and students that President Sullivan had resigned. Observers immediately thought the worst. Had the President committed some heinous offense? Had she done something inappropriate? And would we ever know? Almost immediately, Rector Dragas began issuing statements about what she called “existential threats” to the University.
Justifiably concerned, many of us close to the situation probed further. What we found was that the President had done nothing wrong, and when pressed about the so-called existential threats, all the Rector could summon was that the University was not involved in the so-called on-line learning revolution, something we found out later was totally false and that instead – UVA had been a leader in the area for several years. We further found that the forced resignation was done without any prior evaluation with the President, face to face, with a list of items that she needed to correct. In fact, she had received a sterling evaluation from the Board of Visitors just that previous October. Citizens justifiably wanted to know what was happening at our flagship institution. And why so fast?
What is now clear, from evidence and our probing, is that this forced resignation was done without due process by a small group of people who planned it secretly for months. What resulted was exactly the opposite of what they had expected. While they thought the problem would blow over, they ignited a firestorm that engaged Virginia alumni and the educational establishment throughout the country. We also know that right away the Rector hired a PR firm for damage control and asked the University Foundation to pay for it. We know that she asked the student Board member to enlist other students in writing statements – prepared by the PR firm – in favor of the Board actions. We know the cost of this PR firm was over $200,000, $200,000 that was being used to run down the University and justify the actions of the Rector and the Board. The $200,000 spent was not effective. Some argue that it was the faculty that brought Teresa Sullivan back. But it was not—it was the alumni, thousands of them who convinced the Board of the injustice and unfairness of the forced resignation.
In the last month, the campaign to reappoint the Rector has shown itself to be a quiet but effective operation run by powerful individuals in both parties and backed by some influential business leaders from one area of the state. Many of these people we respect. But it is our vote, not theirs, that counts.
There are those that say that we should defer to the wishes of the Governor in appointments. I agree, but deference should not serve as a substitute for our constitutionally described responsibility to evaluate nominees. To do otherwise is to abrogate our responsibility under the Constitution and the law. If we simply should rubber stamp all recommendations of the Governor, why should he even submit them to us in the first place? In point of fact, we rarely overturn the Governor’s recommendations. But if any situation called out for a rejection, this is it. As a gentleman from Augusta said, if the chairman of the Board of a large corporation did anything remotely similar to this, he or she would not be permitted to remain on the Board.
Responsibility and accountability make a difference
“As you can tell, those of us very close to the situation care deeply about what happened last spring. But why should you? Let me tell you why?
You should care because the University of Virginia is the flagship institution of this Commonwealth. As it rises and falls, so does the reputation of all of our schools of higher learning. The University was not always ranked as highly as it is today. It took years of hiring and retaining a faculty to create its present reputation. And that was put at risk.
You should care because your constituents want to send their children and grandchildren to UVa, and maintaining its quality is important to them. Why else would we hear members of this body take the floor each year and speak about the need to create more in-state slots at the University. Why, because they want to give their constituents the opportunity to attend.
You should care because of the 80,000 graduates of the University of Virginia who live in the Commonwealth and are your constituents. They live in each and every one of your districts. You have heard from many of them, and I will guess that of those you’ve heard from, the vast majority disapprove of what happened last spring and have urged you to vote no on this appointment.
You should care because two groups important to the future of the University — faculty and donors — care. Following the events of last spring, giving to the University dropped precipitously. One prominent donor wrote that it was “disgraceful” what happened and she would not give another penny to UVa. Interestingly, last week she just announced a major gift to William and Mary. The University cannot maintain its excellence without these private donations and the actions of last spring put that at risk.
We also know there are twice as many faculty who are at risk of being lost to other institutions, more than any year in the past. Why? Because of what happened last spring.
Finally, you should care about the University’s accreditation, not so much for what it means for its academic reputation (which will do fine) but for what it means in terms of the threat of losing certain federal funding. The reason? Accreditation actions put some three million dollars of federal grant money at risk. Most people are optimistic that these accreditation issues will be fixed, but it again points out to the implications of the reckless actions that were taken last spring.
We should not be involved in micromanaging the University of Virginia but we should be involved in appointing people to the Board who know how to work in a group and understand the importance of due process in making decisions that have such a critical impact on the institution. The other appointments made by the Governor include people who have strong views, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t, but all of these people know how to work in a group to get something done. That is the key element of an effective Board. And I will support them.
These kinds of decisions are always very difficult, because they involve people who we may like personally but with whom we differ either on policy or in how they conduct business. It works that way in this Chamber.
But it is not a question of whether we like the individual or not. We can respect our colleagues and like each other but that does not mean we vote for each other’s bills or vote for each other at the ballot box. It is not a question of likability. It is a question of performance. It is not a question of whether we respect them. It is a question of good governance.
Are the personal problems of last spring over: People say yes. Those of us close to the situation know differently.
So as you vote today, I urge you to think about the future of Jefferson’s University, about those 80,000 alumni, about a faculty who helps generate those great rankings, about a donor base without which we cannot provide that high level of academic excellence. And about responsibility and accountability.
I urge you to vote no.”