Monthly Archive for June, 2012

Governor Names BOV Appointees; Dragas Among Them

Governor Bob McDonnell has named six new members of the UVA Board of Visitors, and the big news is that reviled Rector Helen Dragas has been reappointed, as a source in the governor’s office said would happen, last Saturday. The announcement came in an e-mail, in which he also named Johns Hopkins Medical CEO Edward Miller, who you’ll recall was Dragas’ pick for interim president, but wound up not the BOV’s pick, presumably as a result of the firestorm of protest to Sullivan’s removal. The remaining four new members are outgoing JMU president Linwood Rose, Northern Virginia Tech Council CEO and Republican political operative Bobbie Kilberg, Gannett CFO and UVA Alumni Association chair Victoria Harker, and McGuire Woods Consulting chairman Frank Atkinson.

McDonnell defended his reappointment of Dragas in his statement, writing:

Just as I was disappointed to see the lack of transparency and communication surrounding the request for the resignation of the first female president of UVa, I am also concerned that the first female rector seemed to become the sole target of recent criticism. While there is no doubt that the board made several mistakes in its actions, which it has publicly admitted, this is not a time for recrimination. It’s a time for reconciliation. I have been heartened by recent statements made by president Sullivan, the Board of Visitors and by the faculty senate chair about their ability to work with the rector. As Faculty Senate Chairman George Cohen said to The Richmond Times-Dispatch, “She (Dr. Sullivan) said she can work with the rector. I think we can work with the rector as well.” That kind of commitment to unity, healing and advancement is crucial to the university’s success in maintaining itself as a pillar of higher education to pursue the growth of knowledge and advance the human condition. Today’s reappointment is made in that spirit and with that purpose. I look forward to the board and administration moving forward together. The university’s tradition is the embrace of inquiry, critical thinking and change, which the rector and many others bring to the table. Ms. Dragas’s serious critique of the challenges facing the university is a voice that must be heard, and can help, in ensuring UVa remains one of the world’s foremost institutions of higher learning.

McDonnell conveniently ignores that Dragas was the sole target of criticism because she was the sole person to screw up terribly. Vice Rector Mark Kington was a close second, but he resigned from the board, insulating him from much further criticism just as the story went national. Complaining that Dragas was singled out for criticism would be like complaining that Katrina was singled out for destruction in New Orleans in September of 2005. Yes, of course she was.

The press release follows.

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Western Bypass Construction Contract Awarded

While I was busy fussing about the Hoo d’Etat, the Commonwealth Transportation Board awarded a $135M contract to build the Western Bypass, Sean Tubbs writes for Charlottesville Tomorrow. The design-build contract went to a company called Skanska/Branch Highways. Simultaneous to the award of the contract was the unveiling of the company’s proposed plan, a 300 page behemoth that folks are still working their way through, to figure out what, exactly, is being built.

Sullivan Wins

In a unanimous vote, the Board of Visitors rescinded Teresa Sullivan’s resignation and returned her employment as the president of the University of Virginia to its five-year contract. In another unanimous vote held immediately afterwards, the BOV passed a vote of confidence for Rector Helen Dragas who started the whole mess. Sullivan remains president, and Dragas now has the political clearance for a re-appointment to her seat on July 1. A cheering crowd of thousands greeted Sullivan as she emerged from the brief BOV meeting, who gave a short speech. After joining in for the first verse of the Good Old Song, the cheerful throngs dissipated.

WSJ Starts Shifting the Sullivan Narrative

In tomorrow morning’s Wall Street Journal there will appear an unsigned editorial that any right-minded individual would agree with. It’s about a university board who tried mightily to convince their new president to cut spending and modernize the school, but the president refused, instead kow-towing to powerful faculty interests. So the university board fired her. And the fat-cat faculty members all but rioted, while the president gave a speech to them. It’s a hell of a story and, of course, it’s not true. Almost none of it is true. What we’re seeing happen before our very eyes is the nationalization of the narrative.

Virginians know the real story: a pair of rogue members of the UVA Board of Visitors secretly engineered a coup against the university president, illegally declaring an “emergency” meeting at which just three members were present to accept the forced resignation. The president was never given a negative performance evaluation, and had been on the job for less than two years, with less than a year of her own budget cycle under her belt. Those board members refused to explain why the president had been fired until many days later, when a strange and illogical list was ginned up that appeared to have no relation to reality.

The facts are not convenient for those who oppose the existence of public education, so the lead intellectual mouthpiece of that group has created some new facts. This new story is one that’s more like the story of Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin unions, one with which half of the country may well sympathize, far more than those rare souls who are liable to sympathize with Dragas at the moment.

Although I suppose it’s possible that the Journal’s talented reporters simply misinformed the editorial board, mangling all of the basic facts of this matter, it’s rather more realistic to assume that this was a narrative dreamed up by Hill and Knowlton, Rector Helen Dragas’ personal PR firm (and paid for by the University of Virginia).

It’s the “why” part of this that’s more interesting. Why would they publish a wildly inaccurate editorial the day before the Board of Visitors convene to settle this matter? (Ignore the governor’s claim that this is the third time they will have met to address this. Assuming they actually hold a vote as to whether they want to retain Teresa Sullivan, it will be the first such vote that they’ve held, at least that anybody knows about.) It’s difficult to believe that such an editorial would sway any members of the BOV. (I’d write that “they’re not going to learn anything new from the editorial” but, in fact, they’d find themselves facing a wholly unfamiliar set of facts.) They know far more about the matter than any editorial board. I think it’s more likely that this exists to set the tone for national coverage after Tuesday’s vote. Now if Sullivan wins, right-wing interest groups across the country will claim that a powerful faculty union has won out against common sense in support of their hand-picked toady of a president. And if Sullivan loses, they’ll claim it as a Wisconsin-style victory against tax-wasting academic elites who have been suckling from the public teat for too long. These angles aren’t at all true, but it doesn’t matter.

The best thing that you and I can do about this editorial? Nothing. Nothing at all. This is a sign that national forces more powerful than any of us are getting involved, and facts clearly do not matter to them. I’m sure that UVA would love to push back mightily, but there’s no doubt that the university’s PR staff has been forbidden from doing so. Only Hill and Knowlton speak for UVA now, and their budget is going entirely to saying awful things about the university. Those who want to affect the outcome of Tuesday’s vote will do better to focus their attentions locally.

A sad, little-acknowledged aspect of this situation is that there are fourteen members of the Board of Visitors who aren’t saying a word. If they wanted, they could push back against this WSJ article mightily. Instead, they are silent which means that, implicitly, Dragas speaks for them. These people who claim to love the University of Virginia apparently regard it like one Army Major did the Vietnamese town of Bến Tre in 1968: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

McDonnell Finally Weighs In; Will He Reappoint Dragas?

Yesterday’s two big events in the UVA debacle were Governor Bob McDonnell’s declaration that whatever Tuesday’s decision is, is final and Helen Dragas’ response to that letter. There were a couple of things of note in those two statements.

McDonnell’s letter to the Board of Visitors is all about acting as if he’s above the fray—he recommends no specific course of action regarding President Teresa Sullivan—but in reality he’s loading the dice. He calls on the members of the BOV to ignore what other people (faculty, staff, students, alumni, etc.) have to say, and just do what they want to do. Which sounds unbiased, but since these groups are unanimous in their support of Sullivan, it’s rather the opposite. He also says that whatever happens Tuesday is final—that the BOV is not allowed to change their minds any more. (Note that they have not yet changed their mind at all. Sullivan was forced out, and nothing has changed since.) What makes three a magic number, he does not say. This either indicates a pretty surprising disinterest in the outcome of a serious controversy at Virginia’s flagship university or that he has cause to think that the outcome is going to be his preferred one. McDonnell’s threat is that he’ll remove the entire Board of Visitors on Wednesday if they don’t get this settled. It doesn’t seem to make any sense for the BOV to ignore new information, as McDonnell’s demand explicitly requires. Even if the BOV found out on Wednesday that Sullivan is famed hijacker D.B. Cooper, McDonnell’s instructions would oblige them to ignore this knowledge and retain her as president. Both McDonnell and Dragas write in their statements that three BOV meetings are enough on this topic. Since Tuesday’s meeting will only be the second meeting of the BOV, that’s an odd assertion—it leaves room for yet another meeting, although it’d need to be squeezed in before Wednesday.

In her brief statement, Dragas unsurprisingly echoes McDonnell’s call to ignore the unanimous demand that Sullivan be reinstated (“we alone are appointed to make these decisions on behalf of the University, free of influence from outside political, personal or media pressure”).

Finally, a reliable source in the governor’s office yesterday told me that McDonnell intends to reappoint Dragas to the BOV on July 1, when her term expires. This sounds too dumb to be true, but after chewing it over, I think that there’s something to it. To be clear, the fact that I was told this doesn’t mean that it’ll happen. Not only could facts change that would cause McDonnell to not reappoint her, but the point may actually be to cause people (specifically the BOV and Sullivan) to believe that McDonnell would be willing to reappoint Dragas—that is, that the source was deliberately fed bad information. The Hook asked the governor’s spokesmen for a comment on this last night, and one responded saying that “the governor will make his decisions about board appointments in late June or early July”.

In a nutshell, the problem is that Sullivan has (ostensibly) said that she won’t return to the presidency unless Dragas steps down. So she’s left her fate in Dragas’ hands. If Dragas refuses to quit, Sullivan would refuse to retake the presidency. That would make Sullivan look petulant and Dragas look like the grown-up in the room. Sullivan loses and Dragas wins, and McDonnell is free to reappoint Dragas, with Dragas looking comparatively reasonable in the eyes of many. But if Sullivan drops the requirement of Dragas’ resignation (if it is, indeed, a requirement of hers), then Sullivan is victorious, Dragas feels like a fool, and McDonnell surely would not reappoint her. Sullivan can safely claim that she never demanded Dragas’ resignation—it was just a rumor. In either case, the governor has a week to test public response before deciding what to do.

In a hour-long, wide-ranging discussion, I chewed all of this over with dozens of people on Twitter last night. R. Cooper was kind enough to collect all of those tweets via Storify, which I’ve included after the jump for those who want to read the great discussion that we all had.

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