Nau reportedly sided with the rector on the hottest topic of the summer.
Nau walked the Rector to her car after she attempted to discretely exit the Rotunda at 3am on June 19.
At the recent retreat of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors inside the Richmond Omni hotel, a Hook reporter approached Board member John Nau to ask about his decision to cover the costs incurred by Rector Helen Dragas by hiring a New York-based public relations agency to put words in her mouth.
"Let's talk about that," replied Nau. "But not right now."
A day later, we asked him again, only this time he just walked away.
On August 23, the UVA communications office confirmed that Nau has agreed to pay the bills that Dragas incurred for communications services from Hill + Knowlton Strategies. UVA media representative McGregor McCance says in an email that Nau "believed this was a way he could help the University turn the page on recent events and refocus on the future."
A Houston-based beer executive, John L. Nau III is reportedly among the Rector's most trusted colleagues, and according to sources, was among the Board's more fervent backers of the recent presidential ouster.
As for the wordsmithing, two statements emerged after the Hook filed a Freedom of Information request seeking resignation-related documents. They included a June 19 email from Washington-based Hill + Knowlton executive John Ullyot giving Dragas two ways to go, after her lead anti-Sullivan cohort, Mark Kington, resigned his Board seat:
• "It's unfortunate that Mark felt the need to resign over an action that was taken with general board consensus, and one that I am confident will generally improve the strategic direction of the university..."
• "Today, I have asked the Governor not to reappoint me to a second term as Rector. As much as I'm certain that changing leadership will improve the strategic direction of the university, I simply believe that the actual selection of U.Va.'s next president should go forward under the fresh perspective of a new Rector..."
The Rector has since had her actions endorsed by the state's highest official, Governor Bob McDonnell, who reappointed her 10 days later to another four years on the Board. And Dragas has reversed herself on the topic of Teresa Sullivan's prowess and– if she ever really entertained it– on any serious thoughts of resigning.
"That day," she explains in a prepared statement, "my middle child celebrated her 16th birthday, sharply reminding me of how much time I've spent away from all three of my children and the impact that continued vitriolic attacks on their mother might have on them. After considering all options, as thoughtful people do, I decided to stay because I believe the issues at stake are very important, and I want to work with the President and others to find solutions that will benefit UVA."
The email from Hill & Knowlton's Ullyot carried "Re: statements" as its subject line, but the Freedom of Information request, curiously, produced no originating email from Dragas. University spokesperson Carol Wood notes that some people simply type "Re:" into their email subject line. Dragas would address the matter only through her prepared comment, and Ullyot issued a blanket no-comment policy to this reporter several weeks ago.
One earlier controversy emerged when Dragas disseminated a list of challenges supposedly requiring a more dynamic leader. That document, distributed June 21, would be widely criticized for noting challenges faced by nearly all public colleges, and life member of the UVA Alumni Association Janet Wilson found it suspiciously similar to the May 3 strategy memo penned by Sullivan and given to Dragas but never shared with the Board.
Another thing catching the eye of Wilson, a 1978 graduate living in Alexandria, was the authorship.
"Last night I looked at the metadata associated with the pdf version of this provided to the Washington Post," Wilson wrote to Dragas in another released email. "It appears that this is not solely your work, and instead it is the product of a Hill & Knowlton employee who didn't have the savvy to strip that metadata. Sure, you have the right to employ a PR firm, but must you be so obvious about it?"
Hill + Knowlton has become something of the go-to company in crisis control. The firm has controversially pushed cigarettes, war, and even helped a Florida apartment community struggling with defective wallboard. With such a pedigree, it's little surprise that Dragas– whose own real estate firm successfully appeased families after a subcontractor installed defective Chinese wallboard– would turn to Hill + Knowlton.
The source who first tipped the Hook off to the Hill + Knowlton hiring noted that the firm can quickly ring up bills of $50,000 and $100,000. On the night of the marathon Board meeting that deadlocked on returning Sullivan to the presidency, a stiletto-heeled woman was often seen scurrying between the Board room and the chamber across the hall. She took no questions.
As for Nau, having served over two decades as the leader of the nation's largest Anheuser-Busch distributorship, he has amassed a fortune that has put him on some of the country's leading boards and allowed him to make donations– including millions for a relatively new building at UVA that's part of the so-called South Lawn Project: Nau Hall.
With his donations to UVA measured at $11.7 million, he is by far the greatest giver on the UVA Board. Only Marvin Gilliam, another reported Sullivan opponent, comes anywhere close at $4.8 million.
A call to Nau's office after the Hill + Knowlton payment announcement was not immediately returned. But despite Nau's willingness to unseat her and pay for words criticizing her leadership, President Sullivan put a friendly spin on the news.
"President Sullivan expressed her gratitude," said the University's McCance, "for his generous gesture."