Dragas shrugged: Defiant rector hires PR firm
With the UVA Faculty Senate formally requesting her resignation and a Board of Visitors meeting with ousted President Theresa Sullivan slated for Monday afternoon, the pressure's on for UVA Rector Helen Dragas to pull a rabbit out of a hat. But even her possible status as the most despised woman in Virginia doesn't appear to be bending her will. At least not yet, as she's hired one of the nation's priciest PR firms to help her manage the crisis.
"She's burnishing her image," says a source familiar with the hire, estimating the firm, which specializes in crisis management– New York City-based Hill & Knowlton Strategies– will carry a pricetag of $50,000-$100,000 to be paid out of a UVA-affiliated foundation.
"Think how many students that could help," says the source.
Perhaps emboldened by her frequent contacts with billionaire donor Paul Tudor Jones and her career developing houses and shopping centers in Hampton Roads, 50-year-old Dragas has demonstrated a steely resolve in the face of immense public backlash and seems unwilling to change course, even as the chorus of critics has ballooned to include former UVA presidents Bob O'Neil and John Casteen, State Delegate David Toscano, and the widows of two other billionaire UVA donors– Hunter Smith and Jane Batten.
"We can, and will, recruit a stellar new president," Dragas writes in a defiant statement emailed to faculty on Sunday, June 17, again justifying the secrecy around the ouster as a "confidential" personnel matter. Sources, however, indicate that Dragas confers frequently with Connecticut-based hedge manager and UVA donor Paul Tudor Jones. But rather than acknowledging the billionaire's influence, first revealed by the Hook, Dragas claims in the memo that it was faculty pressure for raises that helped prompt the firing.
"We also expect that our next leader will help secure the resources and set clear priorities to incent and reward excellence through faculty salaries, support, and sustenance of an engaging and rewarding academic environment," she writes.
One prominent political strategist suggests that Dragas, who was appointed to the board by Governor Tim Kaine in 2008 but elected Rector by fellow board members under Governor Bob McDonnell, needs to manage her fledgling public image quickly or risk permanent damage.
"A week ago, I thought Ms. Dragas had a good chance to be the state's first female governor," writes that strategist, Paul Goldman, on his blog, Bluevirginia.us, explaining how a successful run for lieutenant governor would have positioned Dragas, who also serves on the board of Dominion Resources, effectively for higher office.
"Ms. Dragas had the whole package," Goldman writes. "She was a rising star in my view. A week ago that is."
In an interview in a Darden School publication given prior to her appointment to the rectorship, Dragas says she's known for a "healthy amount of fundamental common sense coupled with relentless tenacity."
That tenacity is sure to be put to the test in the coming days, as she'll have to decide whether to acquiesce to calls for her resignation– including a blunt Monday morning demand by the UVA Faculty Senate's executive committee– or soldier on through swelling outrage.
Many of the business titans behind the Sullivan ouster take solace in their expertise, and like the hard-charging protagonist in the über-free-market bible, Atlas Shrugged, Dragas has a track record of pure capitalism, relying not on governments but the free markets as she develops real estate for eager buyers.
One thing Dragas doesn't avoid is the largesse of the corporate world. For serving on the board of one publicly-held company, Dragas earned nearly $200,000 last year. The most recent proxy statement for Dominion Virginia Power, which is run by a former UVA rector named Thomas Farrell (who was paid $14 million last year), shows that Dragas took home $198,000 in 2011 for attending board meetings. Fellow Dominion board member Mark Kington– her closest companion in the quest to oust Sullivan– was paid $215,000 for serving on the Dominion Board.
The UVA board, however, has always been a volunteer post and, in recent memory, a plum for campaign donors. On the delicate question of how Dragas won appointment to board four years ago, public records show that she donated just $1,000 to the man who appointed her, Tim Kaine.
UVA's top pundit, Larry Sabato, notes on Twitter, that regardless of who appointed her, the current governor Bob McDonnell will soon "own" this controversy, which, Sabato contends, has damaged UVA's reputation and rankings.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch notes the UVA Board spent $258,176 on its search for Sullivan. How much Dragas and Kington cost the school's reputation will be sorted out in the days ahead.
Correction: Helen Dragas was elected rector by fellow board members in 2010, not appointed rector by McDonnell.–ed
This story is a part of the The ousting of a president special.