Virginia lawmakers wimp out on U-Va.

Here’s how tough Virginia’s tough legislative leaders were on Helen Dragas, who, in her role as rector of the governing board of the University of Virginia, threw the school into unneeded turmoil last summer with an ultimately unsuccessful effort to remove the president for reasons that have still not been explained to the public.

They gave her a real talking to behind closed doors before publicly supporting her continued leadership of the Board of Visitors, according to my colleague Robert McCartney in this column.

A little history: Dragas famously tried to fire Teresa Sullivan last summer but a revolt on campus forced the board to reinstate Sullivan. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell reappointed Dragas to the board when her term was up, and board members decided not to toss her out of her leadership role, expecting Sullivan to learn to work with Dragas even though Dragas had blindsided her during the 18-day leadership debacle.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the university’s accrediting body, put U-Va. on “warning” because of the mess. The university’s provost, John D. Simon, wrote an open letter in December responding to that action, saying that the Board of Visitors and the school’s leadership “have been proactively working together” on “governance practices and policies to ensure the highest level of transparency, accountability and responsiveness to all those it serves.” He didn’t mention, of course, that the board can’t work out the problem because the board, or at least its leadership, is the problem. How can they work on transparency when they haven’t really told the public why they wanted Sullivan replaced?

Now the Virginia legislature has to approve Dragas’s reappointment to the board. According to McCartney’s sources, Dragas had a private meeting with Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) and Minority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who gave her something of a “talking to.” He wrote:

They told Dragas there were enough votes in the Senate to confirm her reappointment to a four-year term as a member of U-Va.’s Board of Visitors, according to three people familiar with the conversation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was confidential.


That was positive news for the rector, because she faced stronger opposition in the Senate than in the House of Delegates.


Then came the slap down and the warning: Dragas must in no way view her expected confirmation as an “affirmation” of her disastrous, failed effort in June to oust U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan, the individuals said.


Moreover, there would be major “unhappiness” in the legislature if Dragas were seen as trying to push out or somehow undercut Sullivan in the future.


Then the Senate’s Privileges and Elections Committee easily approved legislation to confirm Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s reappointment of Dragas to serve on the U-Va. Board of Visitors through June 2016. The action came after the committee rejected, 12 to 3, an amendment from Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) to block Dragas’s confirmation, my colleague Nick Anderson wrote in this story.

How’s that for being tough? Dragas plunged the elite state university into turmoil, never explained herself, and somehow gets a second chance. Sullivan is expected to continue working with a woman who she has no reason to trust. The legislators should have thought about that before rolling over on the issue.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · January 17, 2013