The dust has yet to settle at the University of Virginia, but some state lawmakers say the weeks-long leadership crisis will prompt a re-examination of the way university governing boards work.
“I think the whole process by which people are appointed needs to be revisited,” said House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville. “I think there’s probably a role for having a designated slot for someone who has a lot of background in academia, perhaps a faculty member or retired faculty member, someone who understands higher education from the inside out.”
Del. Robert Tata, R-Virginia Beach, chairman of the House Education Committee, said lawmakers are waiting to see how the situation plays out, but it’s likely to become an issue for the General Assembly.
“A lot of times, board members are appointed according to the amount of money they give the university. Sometimes they don’t have the best interests of the university at heart. They have other axes to grind or whatever,” Tata said. “But it’s going to raise a lot of hackles when we get back in session next year, as to why this happened, how it happened and who were the major players.”
There has been near-universal agreement that the UVa Board of Visitors erred by dismissing President Teresa A. Sullivan without a full meeting or a clear explanation of its reasons. Rector Helen E. Dragas, the board member who led the charge for new leadership, has admitted that the UVa community “deserved better” from the board.
The governor’s office appoints all voting members of the Boards of Visitors at the state’s 15 public, four-year institutions, but the size of each board varies.
Of the 16 voting members on the UVa board, state law dictates that at least 11 must be alumni. At least 13 members must be appointed from Virginia. A maximum of three slots can be filled by alumni who don’t live in the state. The board also appoints a nonvoting student member.
The current board consists almost entirely of lawyers and business leaders, many of whom have donated to political campaigns and to UVa.
Carl P. Zeithaml, the dean of the McIntire School of Commerce who was tapped to serve as UVa’s interim president, said Friday that the present troubles may serve as a “teachable moment” on board governance.
“I absolutely believe that there should be other forms of representation on there,” Zeithaml said. “I’ve advocated for various kinds of board reform for years.”
Though Zeithaml didn’t say that reform must occur through legislative channels, he suggested adding faculty, staff and independent experts to the board in order to help political appointees better understand where higher education is going.
“I sort of span both worlds,” Zeithaml said. “I understand business and finance in the private sector, and I think I understand it in the university world. Sometimes it’s hard. Again, it’s not a question of bad intention; it’s just that they’re different. I think there are a lot of principles that can be applied from the private sector into our world here, but not all of them.”
Other would-be reformers simply called for more transparency.
Del. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Henrico, has pushed to hold a legislative hearing on the Sullivan ouster to shed more light on the process. Thus far, his efforts have been unsuccessful, but he suggested he might pursue legislative remedies.
“They must understand that they are exercising public power, not private power,” said Morrissey. “Perhaps that needs to be codified.”
Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, said this week that he’s considering legislation that would force boards of visitors to undergo mandatory transparency training.
Others suggested giving more control to alumni.
The state code spells out that the governor can consider appointments from a list submitted to him by the alumni association, but the governor has no obligation to limit the picks to the alumni nominees.
“It is possible that you could reserve several seats for people who are directly elected from the alumni association,” Toscano said. “Those kinds of changes would bring greater diversity to the board and might make it less likely that you would fall victim to group-think mentality where you don’t have a lot of opposing views being considered.”
Richard G. Tilghman, a former chairman of the UVa Alumni Association Board of Managers, said the association would enjoy that privilege, but he’s not sure what it would take to make it happen. He added that the idea of more alumni control should be part of a broader “rethink” of the appointment process.
“As long as handing out prestigious board appointments to political supporters is part and parcel of the political process, you are not necessarily going to get the best people to serve on these boards,” Tilghman said. “You’re going to get the best donors, not necessarily the most knowledgeable and thoughtful people.”
Dragas has defended the board by saying it sees the “big picture” of university operations.
“Simply put, we have the responsibility, on behalf of the entire community, to make these important and often difficult calls,” Dragas said in prepared remarks delivered at Monday’s board meeting.
Anne D. Neal, president of the nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni, echoed that position. She said boards are tasked with representing the broad public interest, including taxpayers and students, who are often “left out of the conversation.”
“I think it’s important to remember that trustees are guardians of the public interest and they are expected to be independent arbiters of the overall welfare of the institution and not to come in representing specific constituencies,” Neal said. “Trustees are really the only group that brings the broader perspective to bear.”
Neal said that giving board representation to current faculty members would pose conflicts of interest, but having someone with an academic background could be “very helpful.”
State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, said he’s open to ideas about getting a broader array of representation on university governing boards, but the main focus should be on making sure that board appointees are qualified.
“From a legislative standpoint, there’s a risk of being too anecdotally driven, you change the process because of one situation. You can create bad laws. That’s the risk we run,” Deeds said. “…We want to make sure that any structural change we make is going to be one that’s good not just for the University of Virginia, but for the entire system.”