Helen Dragas, the embattled head of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors, confronts what may be the most daunting period of her tenure as the group meets for the first time since reinstating President Teresa Sullivan.
Six new members, along with two senior advisers, were appointed to the board of Charlottesville, Virginia-based UVA on June 29. Dragas was also reappointed, just days after Sullivan was restored to her position on June 26. The board meets today in Richmond.
Dragas—who led the failed effort to unseat Sullivan—and the other appointees must still gain confirmation from the Virginia General Assembly, which meets in January. As calls mount among the faculty, students and alumni for Dragas to resign from her post as head, or rector, she must work with Sullivan to set a course for the university through a variety of educational, financial and administrative challenges.
“They really have to put the events of recent months behind them and remain focused on the issues of affordability and quality that should be at the center of any discussion between presidents and boards,” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington-based advocacy group, in a telephone interview. “Their focus has got to be on the future.”
The university released documents last week related to the ouster attempt that include hundreds of e-mails from alumni demanding that Dragas resign.
The board’s head must show that she respects university faculty and students enough to share information with them, said Suzie McCarthy, a graduate student in politics who organized protests against Sullivan’s dismissal.
Dragas has “taken a kind of ‘mother knows best’ attitude,” McCarthy said in a telephone interview. “If her perspective is my way or the highway, she doesn’t belong at UVA.”
David Toscano, a state representative from Charlottesville who had called for Dragas’s voluntary resignation, said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll support her reappointment by Governor Bob McDonnell.
“I’m hearing from a lot from my constituents that they don’t want me to vote to reappoint Ms. Dragas,” Toscano said. “I’m hearing from a lot of other delegates that to vote for reappointment is not appropriate.”
Carmen Bingham, a spokeswoman for Toscano, said she knew of no cases when the General Assembly failed to confirm an appointee to the board.
The plan to force Sullivan’s resignation on June 10 sparked protests from faculty and students calling for greater accountability and transparency among board members, especially Dragas. McDonnell charged the two new senior advisers—Leonard Sandridge, former chief operating officer of UVA, and William Goodwin, a former university board member—with the task of “solving strategic and communications challenges.”
More revelations about the failed ouster may come from an outside investigation by the university’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, said George Cohen, a UVA law professor and chairman of the faculty senate. While board members have said they would like to move beyond the incident, the trustees may have a duty to explain why they set in motion a process that plunged the school into turmoil and tarnished its reputation, he said.
“There was no emergency, no financial crisis,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s a good idea to figure out what happened to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
In explaining her efforts to dismiss Sullivan, Dragas laid out a series of “hurdles” standing before the college, founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, that require quick, decisive action. State funding per student has fallen to $8,300 from $15,300 in 2000, and the possibility for an increase is “bleak,” Dragas said in a June 21 letter to the university community. The same financial pressures are making it harder for UVA to recruit top teaching and research talent, she said then.
The school has also fallen behind Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University in the use of online education and other technological advances in teaching, Dragas said in the letter. The university lacks a “strategic plan” to deal with these and other issues, she said.
In a July 25 letter, University Provost John Simon also asked Sullivan to begin a strategic planning process to address the university’s goals for the next 10 years. While UVA entered a partnership with Stanford on July 17 to teach courses online, the letter echoed Dragas’s concerns about faculty, educational techniques and finances.
Four days after Sullivan’s June ouster, Simon and Michael Strine, then the university’s chief operating officer, praised the board’s action to remove her as “resolute and authoritative.” Sullivan said she would return to her post only if Strine and Dragas both resigned, the Washington Post reported July 17. In an interview published in the Post today, Sullivan denied that she had demanded Dragas’s resignation. She didn’t discuss Strine, who stepped down Aug. 7.