Teresa Sullivan sent congratulations to all those appointed to the Board of Visitors, including her former nemesis Helen Dragas.
House Minority Leader David Toscano notes that with 33 votes against her, Dragas didn't exactly get a ringing endorsement from the House of Delegates.
Has there ever been a University of Virginia rector as reviled as Helen Dragas, the woman who united students, faculty, and alums in calling for her head following her failed ouster of President Teresa Sullivan last June? And yet, on January 30, the reappointment of this seemingly Teflon-coated Virginia Beach businesswoman sailed through confirmation in the General Assembly with a final 63-33 House of Delegates seal of approval.
"I intend to work constructively with all those who love UVA, regardless of whether they supported my reappointment," writes Dragas in an email to the Hook, promising to work with students, faculty and staff– "even those who did not support my confirmation"– and expressing gratitude for the support of the Governor and the General Assembly.
"They voted for independent board leadership," she says, "and affirmed that issues such as affordability, financial sustainability, academic quality and educational service delivery deserve significant attention."
"You can't say there was clear approval if you've got 33 votes against you," points out Charlottesville Delegate David Toscano, who, along with Delegate Steve Landes, has opposed her confirmation since June when Governor Bob McDonnell reappointed her for another four years on the BoV.
Dragas' critics may have been left in the dust, but some of the most prominent voices of opposition say there are silver linings– and that some important lessons have been learned from l'affaire Dragas.
Perhaps caught most off-guard by Dragas' political agility and confirmation were UVA students. "A lot of students were surprised," says Student Council VP Neil Branch. "They were shocked after how much damage she caused at the university that she would be reappointed, despite the best efforts of faculty, alumni, and students."
The student government held an emergency meeting and passed a resolution January 18 asking the General Assembly to block Dragas' confirmation, which was then already well underway. She'd already been approved by the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee on January 15.
Now, Branch says, Student Council will be working with President Sullivan to restore the image of the university and advocate for higher faculty salaries. He applauds the Landes bills that address governance issues at all public higher-education boards in Virginia, and require, for example, training for board members on their responsibilities, annual performance reviews of the president, and an annual executive summary submitted to the governor and General Assembly.
"Student Council remains committed to honor, transparency, and the community of trust," says Branch. "I commend our representatives– the senators and delegates– who put the future of this university above the politics in Richmond."
Faculty Senate chair George Cohen, who led the faculty vote of no confidence in the BoV last summer, wasn't surprised that Dragas was reappointed. "It's important for students and the entire university community to understand the legislative process and how the legislature goes about interacting with the university," the law professor says. "A lot of us have learned a lot more about how the process works. It's important for us to stay involved."
He, too, pledges support– of Sullivan. "The Faculty Senate is prepared to work with Rector Dragas and the Board of Visitors in support of President Sullivan to address the challenges of the university," says Cohen.
"We're still under warning from the accreditation agency," he reminds. "We need to address those concerns."
Cohen, too, favors the Landes bills, one of which would put a non-voting faculty member on the Board of Visitors. "This is about changing the governance of the board," says Cohen. "The Faculty Senate has been focusing more of our efforts to deal with the board component and the board's relationship with the faculty."
In her email, Dragas points out that over the last six months, the BoV has added faculty to all standing committees– and required full board action for every aspect of the president's contract. In addition, she says, it has established more frequent presidential performance reviews, another component of Landes' legislation.
Alums also widely expressed a wish for a new rector. In August, 14 prominent 'Hoos penned a letter to the Board of Visitors asking them to come clean and "finally explain candidly, to satisfy common sense, what really motivated them to act so precipitously."
Instead, the board has resolutely refused any further explanation of its debacle-inducing behavior, and chastised those with the temerity to ask. "We need to leave the past alone," said BoV reappointee Bill Goodwin in September. "The more you dig, the more you make the university look bad."
Richard D. Marks, Class of '66, is one of the UVA Alumni for Responsible Corporate Governance, and he says he understood back in June that Dragas' reappointment was a likely outcome.
"It was something we realized the day President Sullivan was reinstated– and the board passed an additional motion praising the rector," says Marks.
"What is a surprise," he says, "is the substantial number of delegates– nearly one-third– who voted against Ms. Dragas."
The alum group intends to continue to focus on corporate governance at UVA, and the way boards are selected, appointed, and confirmed around the state, says Marks.
"In this case," he says, "the General Assembly did not adequately fulfill its statutory duty to supervise corporate governance at UVA."
With both the governor and U.S. Senator Mark Warner endorsing Dragas, she was likely to prevail in her confirmation, observes Marks. "The university community learned from this experience that political loyalty trumps accountability."
Marks stresses that none of his group's anti-Dragas sentiment is personal. Instead, the issue is about "a record of incompetent performance in a volunteer office that has substantially damaged the University of Virginia, and what to do about that," he says.
UVA's political-guru emeritus Larry Sabato is just back from an afternoon class when he tells the Hook in an email what lessons his "hundreds of bright, eager, optimistic students" could learn from the Dragas confirmation.
"Were this a pure democracy," writes Sabato, "Helen Dragas' confirmation would have come to a popular vote among UVA alumni, faculty, staff, and students, and Dragas would have lost in a massive landslide. That much is crystal clear to any fair observer. But that is not how we choose BoV members and rectors."
Sabato points out that our representative democracy means the elected governor and legislature make the decisions.
"Presumably, the legislators studied the Dragas case, and for a combination of reasons they chose to ignore local and alumni sentiment. That is their privilege," he says, but it's not without possible consequence.
"Voters pass judgment on election day at regular intervals," he says. "Note that the local legislators with the most contact with people affected by the Rector supported her ouster."
He also cites the unusually high number of legislators voting against Dragas in what would typically have been a rubber-stamped appointment.
"The 33 House votes constituted a sizeable 'no' contingent," Sabato says. "More important, the group was bipartisan in a highly polarized era. A lot of messages were sent in this process, some of them public and others private. It would be a mistake to think that this is a return to the status quo ante."
Finally, Sabato warns, continuing to focus on Dragas is to lose sight of the big picture.
"It's easy to get cynical, but that would ignore the unprecedented restoration of Teresa Sullivan as president," he says. "Many of the same forces that wanted Dragas kept as rector wanted Sullivan ousted as president. The score is one and one– except Sullivan's reinstatement is leagues more significant than Dragas' confirmation. Unelected governing bodies like the BoV almost never reverse themselves on the big things; this one was forced to do it. It is a fresh memory and a long-lasting lesson for all concerned."
Sullivan sent congratulations to all the board members appointed by the General Assembly last week, and continues to stress her desire for reconciliation, says UVA spokesperson McGregor McCance.
The summer’s events "were certainly a reminder of the level of interest and lifelong attachment and care that alumni and others have for UVA," he says. "That wasn’t as much a lesson learned as a powerful statement and reminder."
The amount of national attention last summer did offer this lesson, says McCance: "President Sullivan has said that the experience has clearly demonstrated that what happens at UVA matters far beyond Charlottesville and Virginia. This is one of America’s great public institutions. It’s important to keep it that way and it’s important to recognize that UVA is viewed as a 'beacon of excellence' in higher education."