A national advocacy organization Friday asked the U.S. secretary of education to step into the ongoing fray at the University of Virginia.
Rebuffed by education department staff, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni appealed to Education Secretary Arne Duncan to prevent what it called “the wrongful intrusion of college accreditors in state governance matters.”
Meanwhile, a group of U.Va. alumni, expressing concern about continuing tension at their alma mater, announced plans to monitor actions of the board of visitors and to seek changes in how members are selected.
“The governor and the General Assembly have left U.Va. with difficult, persistent, board-level problems,” the U.Va. Governance Roundtable said, in a reference to the reappointment of Rector Helen Dragas to the board.
Dragas led the board’s unsuccessful attempt last summer to remove President Teresa Sullivan without a vote, which resulted in the university being sanctioned by its accrediting agency.
In December, ACTA filed a complaint with the education department that said the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges acted without authority when it put the university on warning.
Last month, an acting assistant education secretary declined to get involved, telling ACTA that the SACS commission is not “a federal accreditor.”
In a letter Friday to Duncan, ACTA President Anne D. Neal said that if the department “is unwilling or believes it is unable to step in when accreditors act outside their rightful authority, it is time to reform the Higher Education Act and develop an alternative system of quality assurance.”
She said actions by SACS and other accrediting bodies are not fulfilling their “statutory role as gatekeepers of billions in federal financial aid.”
SACS’ contention that the U.Va. faculty senate should have received advance notice of the board’s “intention to terminate a president truly stretches policies on shared governance beyond any reasonable interpretation,” Neal said.
But alumni with a different perspective said this week that they will step up their scrutiny of the board through a new approach under the U.Va. Governance Roundtable.
The group is an outgrowth of U.Va. Alumni for Responsible Corporate Governance, which unsuccessfully lobbied state lawmakers to block Gov. Bob McDonnell’s reappointment of Dragas.
Among those signing the roundtable statement are Richard D. Marks, an organizer of the previous group; former Virginia first lady Roxane Gatling Gilmore; and former U.Va. President Robert M. O’Neil, who served for two decades as director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
The group said it will work collaboratively with students and faculty to evaluate board policies and practices and to make recommendations about how board members should be selected.
The statement criticized the board’s “unwillingness to explain fully the process and substance that prompted the June crisis.”
It said some board members “persist in describing debates about strategic planning and management philosophy as personnel issues related to ongoing evaluation of the president’s performance.”
Statements by some visitors blame Virginia’s open information and open meeting laws and indicate “a preference for continuing to govern in secrecy as a means of avoiding board accountability,” the group said.
U.Va. Student Council Vice President Neil Branch, who spoke against Dragas’ confirmation at a House subcommittee hearing, said an outside group can raise critical questions to help move the university forward, but to be effective it also must engage with the board.
Branch also said Dragas needs to outline her vision for the university, and he plans to invite her to speak to the student council. She declined a previous invitation, he said.