by Gary Robertson
The University of Virginia had never seen anything like it.
By all accounts, no other American college or university had either: A sitting president dismissed by the governing board and then — against any existing precedent — reinstated, all within a period of about two weeks during the tempestuous summer of 2012.
U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan is back on the job now, and the rhythms of another school year have taken over the Grounds, as U.Va. calls its campus. But peace has not settled on Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village in Charlottesville, because there are still too many questions to be answered, and too many hard feelings.
Sullivan and board Rector Helen Dragas, who led Sullivan’s ouster, say they have reconciled and are now focused exclusively on the university’s future. But the executive council of U.Va.’s Faculty Senate, which passed a resolution expressing a lack of confidence in the board of visitors, and other university groups have been examining aggressively the whole issue of university governance.
George Cohen, chair of the Faculty Senate, believes it is important that the board of visitors do a self-assessment to clear the air. “We need to know what the trouble spots are in terms of governance, and what they’re going to do to fix them,” he says.
Meanwhile, broader questions about the governance of all Virginia colleges and universities — and, indeed, institutions far beyond the commonwealth — are being advanced in the aftermath of the imbroglio at U.Va.
Questions about how personalities can derail process also are being explored, as well as questions about whether corporate governance models are appropriate for running an institution of higher education.
Dragas and other members of the board of visitors sought Sullivan’s removal because they felt she was moving too slowly in preparing the university for challenges that higher education faces in the 21st century, mentioning U.Va.’s cautious approach to online education. Sullivan says she was unaware of board members’ concerns about her performance before she was asked to sign a letter of resignation.
No one seems to disagree that transparency suffered. Speaking to that point, former U.Va. President John Casteen was quoted as saying, “In Virginia, you can’t make secret plans for the allocation of public resources.”
A regional accrediting agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, has told the university it is not satisfied with the board’s explanation of its attempt to oust Sullivan, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The university has been asked to submit more information by Nov. 12 for review by the commission’s board of trustees in December. The trustees could decide to accept U.Va.’s latest response as sufficient or determine if sanctions should be imposed on the school.
Meanwhile, Randal J. Kirk, a billionaire businessman who recently resigned from the U.Va. board of visitors, told The Washington Post that Sullivan was hired in 2010 as an “interim” president of the university. The newspaper said one person who served on the board with Kirk agreed with his assessment that Sullivan was not a long-term choice. Seven other former and current board members, however, said Kirk’s account was wrong.
Kirk resigned from the board on Oct. 18, citing his recent move from Pulaski County to Florida.
Legislators in various parts of Virginia are listening to constituents and preparing bills that conceivably could alter the manner in which members of boards of visitors are appointed. These bills would address how board members serve and what instruction about the responsibilities and duties of board jobs they receive before their service begins.
Perhaps no one is more focused on this work than Delegate David J. Toscano, a Democrat who represents U.Va.’s hometown, Charlottesville, and portions of surrounding Albemarle County.
He was within shouting distance — literally — of the upheaval at the university as it unfolded. But he is being careful about moving forward with legislation, noting that lawmakers don’t have all the answers. “It is very difficult to legislate good governance,” he says.
As more is learned about what happened, Toscano says, it appears personality issues were at the root of the problems that threw the university into turmoil. Still, Toscano says the process broke down, and established procedures were apparently ignored.
Nonetheless, he warns that even the most earnest efforts at change can create more problems than they solve.
Options for change are not lacking, however, as private and public entities and ordinary citizens offer up proposals. Toscano already has a plateful.
- Reserve several seats on boards of visitors for individuals who have a specific background in higher education, including sitting or retired faculty members, retired administrators or retired presidents. (Gov. Bob McDonnell has, in fact, appointed former James Madison University President Linwood Rose to U.Va.’s board in the wake of this summer’s turmoil.)
- Have alumni directly elect several members of governing boards — rather than let the governor make all the appointments — in light of diminished state support to colleges and universities. U.Va., for example, says it expects to receive only about 10 percent of its operating budget from the state this fiscal year. Overall, public support has fallen to $8,319 per in-state student in 2012-13, down from $15,274 in fiscal year 2000-01.
- Yet another option would be to alter the way U.Va.’s rector and vice rector are appointed. Toscano believes current policies concentrate too much power in too few people.
While many have called for more transparency for governing boards, William H. Goodwin of Richmond, president and chairman of CCA Industries and a senior adviser appointed by the governor to U.Va.’s board of visitors, believes that too much transparency may have been part of the problem at the university. “With the Freedom of Information law, it’s impossible for good-minded people to thoroughly discuss issues,” Goodwin asserts. “People can’t say dumb things and then change their minds.
“Board members are so uptight they can’t have a healthy discussion. We need to find a way for people to be able to discuss things. It’s like Congress. There are no real discussions taking place, because they all feel they’re under a microscope.”
Delegate Steve Landes, a Republican representing parts of Albemarle, Augusta and Rockingham counties, says he is joining with Toscano and Democratic state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, whose district encompasses Charlottesville and part of Albemarle County, to hold town meetings to hear constituents’ ideas about possible reforms to the board of visitors system.
Landes already is zeroing in on training for prospective board of visitors members, so they’ll be aware of their duties and responsibilities. Currently, the training is optional. “I’m thinking about legislation that will mandate [training],” Landes says.
He’s particularly interested in helping board members understand the Freedom of Information Act and the importance of transparency in making decisions. “We want to know what the cost [of the training] would be and what it would take to provide it,” he says.
Some colleges and universities already offer training programs for their new board members. The state, however, has left responsibility for training board members in the hands of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), which by code is to stage two training conferences annually.
Landes says he was surprised when he learned that the training is not mandatory. “These colleges and universities are not mom-and-pop operations,” he says. “They’re big businesses. The training should be formal.”
A SCHEV spokeswoman says it offers training when funds are available. “There has been no money available, but SCHEV has been offering the training anyway,” says Kirsten Nelson, SCHEV’s director of communications and governmental relations.
She notes that SCHEV has scraped funds together to provide the training, because the agency believes it is important. Box lunches, free meeting venues and volunteer speakers have helped keep costs low.
Three years ago, during the height of the recession, Nelson notes, funds were so tight that SCHEV cancelled training sessions. It mailed materials to new board members and directed them to a website with training information. In years past, she says, about half of the new members participated in training programs.
The governor has the exclusive role to appoint members to boards of visitors — with confirmation by the legislature. In the past, some governors rewarded friends and longtime supporters with board seats.
In 2002, then-Gov. Mark R. Warner tried to improve the selection process by establishing the Virginia Commission on Higher Education Board Appointments, a body that works below the radar most of the time.
The seven-member commission, which is advisory only, screens candidates to weigh their qualifications and makes recommendations to the governor. By law, the commission includes five members who are not legislators and two nonvoting ex-officio members, the secretary of education and the secretary of the commonwealth or their designees. All commission members serve at the pleasure of the governor.
Two of the members must be former members of a college or university board of visitors or the State Board for Community Colleges. Two others are citizens at large. The fifth member must be a former president, provost or executive vice president of a public institution of higher education. Today that position is held by Patricia P. Cormier, the former president of Longwood University in Farmville.
Cormier has concerns about how Gov. Bob McDonnell has changed the model for identifying candidates for boards of visitors since his term began, and she has been vocal in her displeasure. “It used to be that alumni associations would make recommendations in talking with the current [university] president and other boards. McDonnell changed the process to say anyone can apply,” Cormier says.
While institutions can still make recommendations, Cormier says the change permitting individuals to advance their own candidacy has weakened the selection process.
She believes the change also has introduced the potential for more partisanship in the selection process. “Higher education boards should be nonpartisan. Appointments should not be about partisanship,” Cormier says.
Jerry Kilgore, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and a former Virginia attorney general, chairs the commission. Kilgore says politics inevitably will have a role in some selections, whether the governor is a Republican or a Democrat. But he adds that the commission seeks highly qualified people for every open seat on a board of visitors.
Special consideration is given to the recommendations by college presidents and alumni associations, he says. The board does not make a single recommendation to the governor for each seat, he notes, but presents two or three candidates with a brief description of their qualifications.
Despite Cormier’s concerns about allowing people to nominate themselves for board posts, Kilgore suggests that was not a significant change. Virginians always have been allowed to apply for various boards through the secretary of the commonwealth’s office, he says. An online form already lists vacancies for boards of visitors in 2013. That will be the last year of McDonnell’s term, and Kilgore expects a rush of prospective applicants to come forward. In a four-year term, a governor will appoint about 300 members to boards of visitors.
Paul Torgersen, the former president of Virginia Tech who served two terms on the commission during Democratic administrations — Warner’s and Tim Kaine’s — says the system worked well during his years of service. “We tried to take the politics out of the process, but I don’t think we took the politics out completely,” he says.
Torgersen adds that it is often useful for a university president to have board members who are well connected politically.
Other appointment models
Tom Morris, president of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges, says the governing boards of independent colleges and universities operate under a “self-perpetuating” model, in which they identify and elect their own successors.
Morris, a former Virginia state secretary of education and the former president of Emory & Henry College, says independent college boards also tend to include a higher percentage of individuals who have been involved with the institution over a long period.
A 2010 survey by the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities found that the vast majority of public governing boards (77 percent) in every state are chosen by the governor, with 60 percent requiring approval by the state legislature.
Legislatures appointed 3 percent of the governing boards, and 5 percent were elected. A total of 15 percent were selected in a combination of ways or by other methods.
The survey also found that 80 percent of governing board members of public institutions are 50 or older, and that business was by far (49 percent) the professional background of the majority of members.
The role of business
Some have compared the attempted dismissal of U.Va.’s president to the ouster of a CEO by a corporate board. Sullivan, in fact, noted in an address to the board during the crisis that colleges and universities could not be operated in the top-down corporate business model because of their tradition of shared governance, encompassing not only the governing board but also faculty, alumni, donors, students and others.
William W. Keep, dean of the School of Business at the College of New Jersey, wrote an opinion piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education on the U.Va. controversy, headlined, “The Worrisome Ascendance of Business in Higher Education.”
In an interview, Keep said that universities have much to learn from business. “We can learn to allocate resources responsibly, have transparent and disciplined budgets and plan for a more secure financial future,” he said.
Nonetheless, he added, while higher-education institutions should learn the discipline of business, the tendency of business toward an insistence on short-term results is inconsistent with the university model. “The qualities that professional educators worry about often do not lend themselves to short-term market valuation,” he says.
Yet Gordon Davies, who was director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia for two decades, says if you looked back in history some of the biggest supporters of higher education have been business tycoons and industrialists, including some who carried unsavory reputations during their lifetimes. “If you look at the Leland Stanfords, the Andrew Carnegies, the John Rockefellers and the Henry Fords — the robber barons of an earlier age — they were convinced that higher education should be run more like a business,” he explains.
(Stanford founded Stanford University, Carnegie founded what became Carnegie-Mellon University, Rockefeller founded both the University of Chicago and Rockefeller University, and Ford created the Ford Foundation, which became a benefactor of higher education.)
Moody’s Investors Service underscored the problems of the shared governance model in academia in a report released in midsummer. Unlike the top-down corporate governance model, tenured faculty and other groups “can effectively assert their implicit power, even to the extent of quickly blocking a strategic decision of the governing board,” the report says.
Moody’s anticipates increased governance and leadership clashes in the years ahead, as universities’ revenue sources dwindle.
Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, believes the rift between the board of visitors and the president of the University of Virginia will have long-term consequences for higher education governance nationwide.
“It affects the conversation that policymakers, the general public and the corporate sector are having about colleges and universities,” Legon said.
He adds that it’s also heightening the anxiety level. Today, Legon says, higher education is all about change. Governing boards face challenges related to finance, to access and diversity and to successfully preparing students for meaningful careers.
These challenges come amid tumultuous debates about the role of technology in teaching, global competition and student debt. The big question, Legon says, is whether independent, voluntary governing boards — which have created a highly successful model for higher education in this country for the past 350 years — have the capacity to address the changes facing higher education in the 21st century.
To be successful, he says, governing boards must have the training to govern, must have complementary skills sets, and must have members who understand both higher education and the institution to which they have offered their service. “When done well, governance is a team sport,” Legon says.