Targeting Dragas: 'Unpleasantness' not over yet, say legislators
Like a playwright struggling to finish a satisfying final act with characters who refuse to cooperate, State legislators, UVA faculty, and local citizens gathered at a "town hall" meeting at the UVA Law School's Caplin Auditorium September 27 to discuss ways that the "Unpleasantness of June," as it was often referred to, could be brought to a close.
The unpleasantness, of course, was the attempted ouster of UVA President Teresa Sullivan by the UVA Board of Visitors this past June, and should a play ever be penned about the drama, The Unpleasantness of June might actually make a good title.
Meanwhile, there's that closing act.
"We can't move forward until we understand the dynamics of what took place this summer," Del. David Toscano (D-Charlottesville) told the relatively small crowd, pointing out that not asking questions, or refusing to answer them is not consistent with the principles that guide a university, especially a public one.
During the mid-September on-Grounds meeting of the BOV, the first since the June debacle, new members Bill Goodwin and Bobbie Kilberg attempted to gag those who insisted on revisiting the events in June.
"We need to leave the past alone," said Goodwin, a billionaire and major donor to UVA. "The more you dig, the more you make the University look bad." Kilberg told Sullivan directly that she needed to stop responding to questions about the June events.
However, calling for censure at a university founded by a man famous for saying "reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error," might appear especially misguided to some.
In January, Toscano said, the state legislature will meet to confirm or reject appointed members of the BOV, including its embattled Rector Helen Dragas.
"That is a significant decision," Toscano told the crowd. To help them make it, Toscano, along with Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath County), Del. Steven Landes (R-Weyers Cave), and Del. James P. "Jimmie" Massie III (R-Henrico County), listened as a parade of speakers voiced their concerns.
Indeed, Deeds said that he had heard from more of his constituents about the "Unpleasantness of June" than any other issue since he has been in office. Massie, an Henrico County delegate with deep connections to UVA (he is an alum, as are his grandfather, father, and son) declared that he "cared deeply" about the University of Virginia, and that he hoped this bipartisan gathering might lead to proper reforms of the school's governing system.
One speaker, Rev. Jim Richardson of St. Paul’s Memorial Church, drew considerable applause when he suggested that the BOV be required to meet in a more plain "auditorium such as this," under more open public display, instead of in the hallowed halls of the Rotunda, which he said might have bred a mentality of entitlement.
Another speaker, UVA engineering professor Larry Richards, suggested that the BOV's infatuation for sealing itself away behind the wall of the Rotunda left them out of touch.
"The teachers, the students, the alumni all loved Teresa Sullivan," he said. "But the BOV didn't understand that. They didn't know. When they critized UVA's work with online education, they had no idea that UVA was a leader in the field. The BOV needs to know what it is the University actually does."
Richard Marks, a 1966 UVA grad, and one of 14 prominent alums who have called for "analyzing the crisis based on legal principles of corporate governance," got straight to the point.
"We are asking that you reject the reappointment of Rector Helen Dragas," he said.
From the outside, said Marks, it looks to people like "UVA is mismanaged at the top," and suggested that allowing Dragas to remain only continued to reinforce that view. Indeed, while some speakers pointed out that Dragas did not act alone, she has become the public face of the debacle.
"At a publicly traded company, if a Board member made decisions like this, they'd be gone," said Marks. "You want universities to be more business-like? Well, you have to know how the business works. The BOV did none of that, and that level of malfeasance is egregious."
After the general election in November, Marks told the legislators that they could expect UVA alumni to demand that Dragas not be re-appointed.
Deeds agreed that short-term fixes, in appointments, needed to be made, but also reminded the audience that in the long term the appointment system needed to be reformed. But he also said that wouldn't be easy.
"I once tried to have faculty members put on BOVs across the state," he said, "And I couldn't get the legislation out of committee."
Landes, too, said that "more transparency" was needed from the BOV, as well as better training for the job. Getting statewide support for changing things though could be a challenge, as other areas of the state might not feel as strongly as those in the Charlottesville area. But, as all of the legislators pointed out, they had received comments from UVA alums about the failed ouster from all across the country.
Before the vote in January, Toscano mentioned the accreditation report from the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the body that guides and governs the statewide school system, and enforces standards of institutional integrity, governing board control, and faculty participation in governance.
One sensitive subject the Commission will have to explore is whether or not a not a small group of BOV members orchestrated the attempted ouster, and if forces outside the University influenced the move. Both would be governance no-nos. UVA officials, however, have insisted that the BOV made no procedural errors.
"That accreditation report in December is a big deal," said Toscano. "Particularly in terms of the appointment process."
Indeed, a negative report from the Commission could seriously discredit Dragas and the BOV ahead of the scheduled January legislative session.
"UVA alumni, if they feel strongly about this, need to speak up," said Toscano. "It's not over yet."This story is a part of the President Sullivan retakes the reins special.