Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: McDonnell Needs to Get to the Bottom of UVA Coup

After writing a column in this newspaper for 17 years, I have kept a low profile since I left public office in January 2010, and I have not commented publicity about issues of the day. However, after reading about the ouster of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan, I felt compelled to make some observations about what I consider a travesty of university governance.

As a Virginia Tech alumnus, I can state unequivocally that there is no love lost between my alma mater and UVa in athletic contests. However, I think that even diehard Hokies will admit that the University of Virginia is one of the premiere institutions of higher education in the world.

Created by one of the founders of our democracy, Thomas Jefferson was so proud of this achievement that it is one of the few accomplishments he wanted put on his headstone upon his death. The school has been a cornerstone of higher education in this commonwealth for almost 200 years.

Like Virginia Tech, UVa has been guided by stable and effective leadership since its founding. Yet, all of that has been called into question by the action of the rector of its Board of Visitors, Helen Dragas, who orchestrated what in statecraft would be called a bloodless coup d’etat.

Apparently dissatisfied with her leadership, Rector Dragas is said to have asked for Dr. Sullivan’s resignation by telling her that she had the votes to remove her. Unfortunately, Dr. Sullivan acceded to the request while I would have called her bluff and told her to make my day and have that vote.

But, I say that as a person used to the rough and tumble of politics who understands the psychology of the vote, whereby a promise of support over the telephone can change once a person has to make an up-or-down, yes-or-no, the-whole-world-is-watching public vote.

No, higher education is characterized not by political conflict like that, but by collegiality. That is what was so sorely missing from this action. A power play like that may work well in the politics of corporate backrooms, but it is not what is expected by the head of a public body like a Board of Visitors.

Every public body in the Commonwealth of Virginia is required by law to act in the same manner, whether it is a City Council, Board of Supervisors, park authority board, or Board of Visitors. Personnel matters are discussed in executive session, but final action can only be taken in an open and public session.

Not only did that not happen in this case, but the Board of Visitors only allowed Dr. Sullivan to address it on Monday in a closed session. Voters would not stand for elected bodies making decisions like that in private and neither should the Governor.

Governor McDonnell, with whom I served when he was in the House of Delegates is a fair and pragmatic leader. But, I disagree with him when he says that his job is to appoint members of Boards of Visitors and then sit back so that they can make university decisions.

One of the Governor’s jobs is to insure that our colleges and universities are managed effectively and governed openly. He needs to step in and ask for the resignations of Rector Dragas and the others in the cabal that handled this in such a manner.

Without strong action, he risks the continued stability of a flagship institution of higher education. Important donors such as the Batten and Smith families have already threatened to withhold future contributions. Some administrators and professors may leave the school because of the uncertainty of its leadership.

I do not know what really motivated this action by Rector Dragas. It is said that she stated it was due to Dr. Sullivan not acting quickly enough to cut costs. Yet, it is the Board of Visitors that approves annual budgets and the Board of Visitors that has finance and audit committees that can work with the president on such issues.

Of course, the biggest hurdle that a university faces in Virginia is that they are now almost non-state supported institutions of higher education that have been forced to raise billions in private funds to help pay costs. In Virginia, state support of our public universities is down to about 16 percent of their total budgets.

So, what was the real reason for this coup? Was it personal? Was it political? Because the Rector and Board are not forthcoming, who really knows? It is up to the Governor to get to the bottom of this and put things back on a stable footing.


Bob Hull is a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates. Hull represented the 38th District which includes parts of Falls Church.