RICHMOND ---- To become a member of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors, one must first be appointed by the governor -- and then learn as much as humanly possible about the historic school as quickly as humanly possible during a two-day orientation session.
The latest class has four members, who gathered for a crash-course on UVA 101 on Tuesday and Wednesday. Their classroom is a conference room at the Omni Richmond Hotel. Their instructors are U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan and a parade of top administrators. And their reading material included binders, manuals, handouts and a copy of a handbook issued to all new U-Va. parents.
On Tuesday, Sullivan reassured them that it was okay to feel like they were “sipping from the fire hose.”
And unlike previous classes of new members, this group is under the watchful eye on a panel of reporters who take notes, tweet and snap photos. Two local activists are recording the event and streaming video.
The governing Board of Visitors fell under the national spotlight this summer after its leader, Rector Helen E. Dragas, asked the president to step down. Sullivan resigned in early June, but was reinstated later that month. There are still lots of questions about what happened, why it happened and whether Dragas and Sullivan can productively work together from here on out. Both women have said they are dedicated to making things work.
Before orientation began on Tuesday afternoon, Sullivan mingled with the new members before jumping into the training. Over the two days, Dragas and Sullivan have sat across from one another and seemed friendly.
Most of the sessions have been held in public, although the doors were closed to discuss legal matters and medical center operations. The press was also not invited to social events, including a Tuesday evening happy hour and dinner.
The focus of the training has been firmly away from the tension, with no public mentions of all the unpleasantness of the summer. Instead, the class has focused on UVA 101 topics like:
An upcoming accreditation process. Graduation rates for undergrads, which Sullivan said are high, and PhD students, which she said need to be higher. Assessing what students learn over four years. An aging faculty and plans to go on a hiring spree. The fear of private institutions poaching top faculty. Getting donations once again pouring following a skid during the recession. Beefing up career services for students. Campus safety, which Sullivan said includes teaching students not to text as they cross major streets. Slowly increasing enrollment over several years. Residence halls and off-campus housing. Financial models and budgeting processes. Tuition rates and financial aid. Faculty pay and how it compares to other schools. Facilities and construction projects. The complexities of the university’s medical center and the plethora of rankers who evaluate medical care.
The new members include: Bobbie G. Kilberg of McLean, who is the president and CEO of the Northern Virginia Technology Council; Victoria D. Harker of McLean, who is a U-Va. graduate and is the chief financial officer of Gannett Co. Inc.; Linwood H. Rose, the former president of James Madison University, who has a doctorate degree from U-Va.; and Frank B. Atkinson, a Richmond consultant with a U-Va. law degree.
The board also welcomed its newest non-voting student member, Hillary A. Hurd, a rising fourth-year student from Richmond who is studying Russian. For the first time, the board has two special advisers who were appointed to one-year terms by the governor: Leonard W. Sandridge Jr., the university’s former chief operating officer who retired last year after more than 40 years of working at U-Va; and William H. Goodwin Jr., who has previously served on the board.
Goodwin has shared his historic knowledge of the university with the group. An example: During a discussion about the medical center’s finances, Goodwin pointed out that it has not always been doing as well as it is now.
“We’ve had some tough, tough years,” he said. “Let me just tell you... We’ve come a long way.”
Several of the new members asked a variety of questions. At one point, Dragas asked if students are increasingly using e-books instead of traditional textbooks. The president told her that numbers are increasing and professors are becoming more creative with how they select and assign reading material. Provost John Simon added that the library now has more electronic checkouts than traditional ones. The student member of the board, Hurd, told the group that students love the library so much that she has seen birthday parties held there.
The training is expected to continue until lunchtime on Wednesday. The new board members will then receive their first big test: A two-day board retreat that begins Wednesday afternoon and is expected to explore how the board operates and governs.
This post was updated on Thursday to include more information about the new members.
I might tweet some updates and photos along the way, so check out my Twitter page, @WPjenna. You can also follow me on Facebook. And here are some of our recent articles about the U-Va. leadership crisis: