U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), a former governor, recently voiced support for Dragas in phone calls to a handful of key lawmakers, including House Democratic leader David J. Toscano (Charlottesville), who opposes her confirmation.
Dragas has apologized repeatedly for her missteps during the crisis and has pledged solidarity with Sullivan. But she is still seen in many quarters as an aggressive advocate for shaking up academia through a results-oriented, cost-conscious approach rooted in principles drawn from the business world.
Lawmakers say the confirmation debate is not only about the tenure of the Virginia Beach businesswoman who chairs the board of the state’s flagship university but also about the future of public higher education.
“I don’t deny that what happened last summer is best classified as a debacle,” state Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax) said. “On the other hand, I also feel very strongly there needs to be more accountability in higher education.”
Petersen said he wants to promote spending efficiency and “value for the tuition dollar.” A U-Va. law graduate, Petersen sits on the committee that will consider the Dragas appointment. As of late last week, he had not taken a public position.
“What disturbs me is if this becomes not just a revolt against [Dragas],” Petersen said, “but against the concept of having an independent board that seeks accountability from the president. The president doesn’t own the university.”
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), another U-Va. alumnus, said he wanted to learn more about why Dragas wanted to oust Sullivan before he decides how to vote.
“A lot of us are worried that not reappointing [Dragas] sends a message to all these schools that the faculty and the students and staff can run the show,” Albo said.
Opponents say Dragas forfeited the right to a leadership role after she forced Sullivan’s resignation in early June without holding a full board debate or vote on the matter. That was followed by two weeks of upheaval on campus as Dragas struggled to justify why and how she engineered the ouster. Outraged alumni flooded McDonnell, lawmakers and the board with complaints — mainly targeting Dragas and her board allies.
“I don’t think anybody can say in this situation, honestly, that she showed good judgment or leadership,” said Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta), who opposes Dragas’s confirmation.