Dragas hugged: Controversial UVA rector embraced by Governor McDonnell
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has doubled down his predecessor's bet on Helen Dragas, reappointing to the University of Virginia Board for a second four-year term a person who controversially fired a sitting president before the president, Teresa Sullivan, was reinstated after news broke about potential improprieties in the process.
"How's that for a poke in the eye?" says 1987 UVA Law graduate Jim Severt. "Maybe both eyes?"
"This is not a time for recrimination," the governor said in a statement. "It's a time for reconciliation."
Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, an outspoken critic of Dragas during the campus-rocking controversy, expressed little shock after what he saw as compromise following a major blunder by Rector Dragas.
"This doesn't surprise me," says Vaidhyanathan. "The whole process of getting President Sullivan reappointed must have involved some pretty serious deal-making among the top parties."
Sullivan and Dragas walked side-by-side into the UVA Rotunda on Tuesday, June 29, for a meeting that included repeated apologies by Dragas, who had inflamed critics the previous Thursday by issuing a 10-point list of woes UVA faces and which Sullivan, by implication, had somehow failed to address. By the end of the Tuesday meeting, Sullivan was the president again. Conspicuously, she had dropped any demand voiced by her faculty and by newspaper editorial pages across the state that Dragas must be ousted.
"The fact that President Sullivan pledged to be civil and respectful with those who had caused this problem," says Vaidhyanathan, "should have led us to predict that the Governor wanted to keep Rector Dragas on the board."
And that has many people in Virginia wondering why. Why keep such a divisive figure on board the state's flagship university?
The governor sounds a note of fairness to females:
"Just as I was disappointed to see the lack of transparency and communication surrounding the request for the resignation of the first female president of UVA, I am also concerned that the first female rector seemed to become the sole target of recent criticism."
Noting that both Sullivan and the outspoken Faculty Senate chair have gone on record to say they can work with Dragas– and with Dragas issuing her own statement enthusing about working with President Sullivan– the governor goes on to say that the reappointment came in a "spirit of unity" to help reconcile a bitterly torn UVA community.
"That kind of commitment to unity, healing, and advancement" writes the governor, "is crucial to the university's success in maintaining itself as a pillar of higher education to pursue the growth of knowledge and advance the human condition."
One person eligible for reappointment not on the governor's list is Robert Hardie. An executive in the family business run by his father-in-law, Richmond billionaire William Goodwin, Hardie does get to see his father-in-law appointed– along with former UVA chief operating officer Leonard Sandridge– appointed a "senior advisor" to the board.
Vaidhyanathan contends that one key to improving UVA is that the other people the governor appointed seem like more responsible and appropriate contributors.
"I'm pleased by the appointment of Dr. Linwood Rose," says Vaidhyanathan. "He's a career academic, he's exactly the sort of person who should be serving on these boards– bringing knowledge and experience rather than merely campaign contributions."
The Washington Post recently opined: "If this month’s fiasco at the University of Virginia has proved anything, it’s that success running a family construction company and writing checks to politicians doesn’t necessarily qualify you to oversee one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning."
Double UVA graduate James B. Kiracofe of Western Albemarle says he finds himself "dumbfounded" by the decision to reappoint someone who created so much controversy– "even more than when the students were protesting the Vietnam War."
Although he wanted Dragas to resign for her secretive method of ousting Sullivan and thereby launching a national accreditation inquiry, Kiracofe now contends that a battle-worn Dragas may surprise UVA.
"it's bound to have affected Ms. Dragas," says Kiracofe. "Maybe she'll come back and do great things."
“Each of us on the Board looks forward to working in a constructive and inclusive way with President Sullivan, along with students, faculty, alumni, and staff on tackling the broad challenges that face the University," Dragas says in her statement. "Together, I’m confident that we can preserve and enhance UVA’s greatness for present and future generations.”
"She has a lot to prove," says Vaidhyanathan. "She clearly acted dishonorably and against the best interests of the University. It's her burden to show that she has learned from her mistakes."
"I do hope," continues Vaidhyanathan, "that the legislature looks into the governance habits of university boards across the state in the next session. There's a lot that we can learn from what just happened. I think a series of hearings would be healthy."
Note: Story corrected to remove mention of Glynn Key, a board member who was not eligible for reappointment but described otherwise in early draft of this story.This story is a part of the The ousting of a president special.Read more on: Helen Dragas