Cohen along with fellow Faculty Senate leaders Chris Holstege and Gweneth West shortly before Cohen blistered the Board.
Dragas has found support for her leadership at the governor's office.
The days leading up to the first on-Grounds meeting of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors since their June debacle were tense. No public protests, but pre-meeting mention of Machiavelli and Keystone Cops from one UVA professor was just one of several public statements to shine unwanted light– so brightly that when the Board met on Friday, two newly-tapped members demanded blinders. Or a gag.
The week got off to an interesting start when the great Grey Lady, the New York Times, weighed in with the pre-print version of its Sunday magazine cover story headlined "How Not to Fire a College President." The over-5,000-word article mostly retold the June firing and rehiring of President Teresa Sullivan, but hitting the web on Tuesday, September 11, it added several fresh morsels:
• that Rector Helen Dragas may have borrowed her meet-privately-with-all-boardies strategy from her father, who helped oust the president of Old Dominion University in 1988;
• that by supporting Sullivan's reinstatement, former Rector John "Dubby" Wynne so vexed his successor that Dragas publicly vents that Wynn retained a metaphorical "key" to the Rotunda;
• that Rector Dragas really did chastise the president for her appearance.
That last notion created a minor firestorm for this newspaper when a late-June story asked whether appearance-based bullying might have influenced the decision by the athletically trim Rector and then Vice Rector Mark Kington to unceremoniously push the president from her office in Madison Hall. (Both, in a rare breach of their silence, emphatically denied the allegation.)
Speaking of Madison Hall, it turns out that emails released September 12 at the request of the Washington Post show that the Rector– who already had free reign over a house she planned to buy in southern Albemarle– attempted in the days following the June 10 ouster announcement to set up an on-Grounds office right in Madison Hall.
Among the more fascinating set of revelations was the public relations effort– one beset by missteps, six-figure spending, and ethically questionable moves.
For one, Rector Dragas targeted Larry Sabato. An author and pundit of national stature, he's also a professor whose salary can be altered by the Board of Visitors. Dragas asked Sabato to pen an article confirming the Board's wisdom. He didn't do it.
"Time is of the essence," a seemingly panicked Dragas wrote to Sabato on the evening of June 14. "Do you have a staffer who could assist if you make the decision to move forward today? It would be important for it to be someone you trust completely– the resistant forces of change are still lodged within the administration."
Perhaps more troubling were emails showing that Dragas attempted to enlist the lone student member of the Board of Visitors, a young woman– whom Dragas initially convinced of her vision with a two-hour conversation– to tamper with public opinion.
"Do you know of students on grounds who might be willing," Dragas asked student Board member Hillary Hurd, "to assist with a communications effort by engaging constructively in the blogs as guided by a communications consultant?"
Already, Dragas has come under fire for hiring PR firm Hill + Knowlton, whose bills– totaling $209,000 (the public learned on August 23)– were paid by fellow board member John Nau, III, while Dragas told another news outlet that she paid nearly $40,000 to a second firm. This email makes it sound like the Rector has asked a student to put a shill's words into a fellow student's keyboard.
The notion so troubled UVA history professor Bruce Holsinger that he wrote an online article for the Chronicle of Higher Education reminding the Rector that UVA has an Honor Code that strictly forbids submitting someone else's work as their own. And Holsinger isn't alone in condemning the request.
"If I had done what the Rector did, I would be fired, and I should be fired," said Media Studies department chair Siva Vaidhyanathan. "This is so revealing about the Rector's moral standing in this event. She was unwilling to speak herself, and yet she was willing to use her position to manipulate others to do her bidding."
"It's beyond egregious," says Coy Barefoot, an author who has written extensively about UVA history and who has the weekday radio show on which Vaidhyanathan made his comments about Dragas.
"Alumni who live and breathe the Honor Code are so deeply offended by this," said Vaidhyanathan. "She doesn't understand the norms that guide our ethics here. She has no moral standing."
And yet Dragas must have twice signed her name to the Honor Code, as she attended UVA both as an undergraduate and at the Darden School of Business. While the Honor Code doesn't apply after graduation, its principles, Vaidhyanathan said, should guide the conduct of everyone at UVA.
For her part, Hurd– who quickly took back her initial celebration of the president's ouster in a second Cavalier Daily article and who publicly condemned the ouster process even before reinstatement– asserts she didn't actually recruit anyone. "I've never been involved in any blogging efforts," Hurd says in an email.
It was governance issues that appeared topmost in the mind of education professor David Breneman when he appeared on a panel on the future of the University on September 12.
"If a board wants to be Machiavellian, then read Machiavelli first," said Breneman.
"It's too easy to ridicule the Keystone Cops aspect of this unfortunate event," continued Breneman, noting that when he served on the board of Goucher College, his board felt guided by the concept of "noses in, fingers out."
Earlier that day, Sullivan herself spoke of the University's future at the Miller Center. Perhaps taking veiled aim at Dragas– who initially tried to claim that Sullivan failed to address an "existential threat" to UVA's greatness– or perhaps simply trying to reassure the public, Sullivan declared that UVA is not in crisis. She limited discussion about June, though noting that on her nightstand she had three books on forgiveness.
One thing the New York Times noticed that may have spurred Dragas was a mid-May letter signed by a majority of tenured faculty pointing out that in real terms, their pay has fallen through several years of salary freezes. And yet if Dragas felt the letter gave her a mandate to unceremoniously oust the president, she was greatly mistaken. Not only did the Faculty Senate call for the president's reinstatement, but it called for Dragas's resignation.
However, to date, Dragas has received firm support from Governor Bob McDonnell, who criticized those who would criticize Dragas. And in late June, McDonnell, who has made education reform a centerpiece of his administration, reappointed her to another four-year Board term.
At the same time, in addition to other appointments, the Republican governor reinstalled billionaire Bill Goodwin into the Board as a non-voting special advisor.
Non-voting doesn't mean non-talking. Goodwin and a new boardie, a longtime Republican operative, leapt into a public scolding of anyone still seeking answers about the forced resignation.
The comments from Goodwin, a businessman who has given over $50 million to the University, were seconded by Bobbie Kilberg, the board member who, having donated just $100, has made the smallest financial contribution to UVA. Their remarks came after a blistering speech by UVA Faculty Senate Chair George Cohen. At the September 13 meeting, Cohen suggested that the UVA board, despite reinstating the president and hoping to hit what he termed a "reset" button, still would not win a faculty vote of confidence.
"The reset view is a fantasy," declared Cohen. "The simple fact is that this crisis has not gone away."
Cohen noted that two national investigations are underway, that alumni feel "frustrated and upset," and that state legislators– who have statutory authority over the Board– are pondering action.
"Many eyes are watching us," said Cohen. "To date, the Board has not provided a clear and satisfactory explanation to the University community of why it asked President Sullivan to resign."
As Cohen finished his remarks, the basement room of the Harrison Small Institute, a rare books library pressed into service due to construction at the Rotunda, got very quiet.
"Can we discuss this?" asked Goodwin, taking the floor from committee chair Stephen Long. "We need to leave the past alone. The more you dig, the more you make the University look bad."
Goodwin said that his own marriage wouldn't have lasted its 45 years if he and his wife spent time revisiting the past. And that's when Bobbie Kilberg piped up. A veteran of administrations from the Nixon White House to the current governor's transition team, Kilberg wasn't on the board in June.
"I do not know what happened, and frankly I just want to move ahead," said Kilberg. "I think we gain absolutely nothing by rehashing this. My late father used to say that if you walk around contemplating your navel, you might hit a brick wall."
Kilberg also noted, "We agreed at our retreat that we would not be talking to the press." The Hook attended 100 percent of the open portion of that three-day August retreat in Richmond, and while all questions to the Rector were rebuffed, we never heard any board members discuss a ban on talking with media. Kilberg declined to elaborate on her statement.
She went on to say publicly that her daughter, a Washington lawyer and 2002 UVA grad, initially refused to attend a D.C.-area alumni event featuring Sullivan for fear it would "rehash" what happened in June.
Since June, the UVA Alumni Office has fielded literally thousands of comments– almost all critical of the Board– and the alumni magazine dedicated its most recent issue to the June events. Seeking confirmation of the tale of the disinterested alumnus, a reporter reached out to Cameron Kilberg.
It turns out that Bobbie Kilberg has a history of letting her daughter get involved with public bodies. Nearly a decade ago, while Kilberg was president of the Northern Virginia Technology Council, her daughter won appointment as director of a publicly funded group under Council control. Today, the younger Kilberg serves Governor McDonnell as his Assistant Secretary of Technology, which is where we reached her by telephone.
"My comments to her were as an alumna, a mother-daughter conversation over dinner," explains the younger Kilberg, "not as a representation of the governor."
At the Thursday BoV meeting, Sullivan unleashed specifics for her new proposal to bolster faculty salaries. She wants the Board in November to green-light her plan to find $65 million over five years to close what she sees as a $7,700 average salary gap among top peer institutions. She also decided to address the comments made by Goodwin and Kilberg.
"My remarks have been forward-looking," said Sullivan, noting how her recent speeches have focused on raising faculty salaries, on reinventing the curriculum, and improving research. Any talk of June, she said, comes afterwards in the Q&A periods.
"I can't control what people want to ask me," said Sullivan.
"Well, good, Terry," replied Kilberg. "Just say, 'We're not entertaining those questions; I want to talk about the future.'"
Sullivan leaned forward to grab a bottle of water, took a sip, but did not respond.
"I told you my committee meeting would be a little bit different," said committee chair Long to nervous laughter throughout the room.
The September 13 meeting wrapped with the Board's appointment of a new vice rector. He is George Keith Martin, and unlike Kilberg, he somehow breached whatever agreements were made behind closed doors in Richmond by chatting amiably with a reporter about the president.
"I personally have a great deal of confidence in her ability to lead the University and attract the talent we need in the future," said Martin. A lawyer with the Richmond powerhouse McGuireWoods, Martin would be the University's first African-American rector when– unless external forces intervene– the torch will be passed to him next summer.
However, that torch could be passed sooner. The recent trove of FOIAed emails included one from Reston-area state legislator Kenneth Plum asking Dragas to resign. Plum, a Democrat, would join fellow Democrat David Toscano and Republican Steve Landes, both of whom have confirmed to this reporter to be leaning toward voting Dragas off the Board, something the General Assembly can do when it meets in late January. A majority vote against Dragas by either of the two legislative branches would remove her.
Toscano and state Senator Creigh Deeds have slated a meeting at the UVA law school on September 27 to discuss their options.