The board has drawn intense scrutiny this week after it ousted U-Va.’s popular president, Teresa Sullivan, with barely a word of warning to state lawmakers, the university community or Sullivan herself.
The campus erupted in protest at the board’s decision to remove Sullivan after less than two years, one apparently made in quiet conversations over several months. Faculty, staff and alumni are demanding explanations. But board members have said little. This week, they have referred calls and e-mails to the board’s leader, rector Helen E. Dragas. On Tuesday, two days after the ouster of Sullivan was made public, Dragas did not respond to a request for comment.
There are about 200 seats on boards overseeing state universities, which are among the most coveted appointments a Virginia governor can offer. The board at U-Va. — a premier public university — is the top prize.
Seats typically go to supporters, donors, friends and those who are owed a favor.
But Gary C. Byler, a Republican activist appointed to the board of Christopher Newport University last year, said sometimes it’s more than that.
“It isn’t just cash contributions,’’ he said. “It’s more of an issue of philosophical agreement.’’
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said last week in an interview that he looks for those who share his goals of reducing college costs, increasing slots for in-state students and making schools more efficient. He said he regularly receives input from presidents, other board members and a group charged with making recommendations.
“If you’re going to have a new vision for higher education and you’re going to have new major reforms that you want to put in place, you need new managers to carry out that vision,’’ McDonnell said.
Boards wield enormous power hiring and firing the president, setting tuition rates, managing finances and approving faculty tenure.
Members, who can serve up to two four-year terms, are not paid.
Former governor L. Douglas Wilder (D) said political considerations play a part in selecting board members. “There’s no need to duck that,’’ he said.
But Wilder said he also tried to judge what the potential member could offer besides being a graduate. Could they bring in grants? Could they help recruit a diverse student body? Could they raise money?
“The autonomy of schools is always to be respected, but the governor does have the responsibility to shape them,’’ he said.
U-Va.’s board is split equally between members appointed by McDonnell and former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D). Kaine, now the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, declined to comment Tuesday.