A U-Va. showdown looms in legislature


Helen Dragas faces a tough battle in the Virginia General Assembly to maintain her position on The University of Virginia’s governing board. In June, Dragas led a failed attempt to oust the school’s president, Teresa Sullivan. (Steve Helber/AP)
January 13, 2013

A former Democratic governor and other allies of University of Virginia Rector Helen E. Dragas are pressing state lawmakers to keep her on the school’s governing board, more than six months after she precipitated a leadership crisis in Charlottesville with a botched attempt to oust the U-Va. president.

A showdown over Dragas is nearing in Richmond — with a committee vote expected Tuesday — as the General Assembly considers whether to approve Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s (R) decision last summer to give her a second four-year term on the governing Board of Visitors. The June 29 appointment, controversial on the campus and among alumni, came three days after Dragas reversed herself and voted with the rest of the board to reinstate the popular Teresa Sullivan as U-Va. president.

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.

Dragas, 51, has won support over the years from a bipartisan trio of governors. That record may help her overcome what would be a rare confirmation battle in the legislature. Warner put her on a state transportation board when he was governor. His successor, Timothy M. Kaine (D), named her to the U-Va. governing board in 2008. And McDonnell stood by her.

Kaine, now a U.S. senator, declined through a spokeswoman to say whether he has taken a position on the confirmation. “Senator Kaine has no role in the reappointment process and has not reached out to anyone about it,” said his spokeswoman, Amy Dudley.

Warner has called at least three state Democratic lawmakers to support Dragas. “Senator Warner has known Helen Dragas for years and considers her a friend,” Warner spokesman Kevin Hall said. “He believes events last June were poorly handled and embarrassed the university. He also agrees with President Sullivan that the university would be best served by moving forward instead of re-litigating last summer’s events.”

Sullivan, while urging campus unity, has taken no public position on the reappointment.

Nor have faculty leaders — in sharp contrast to their activism in the battle to reinstate Sullivan.

“The concern is that we want to be as cooperative as possible with the board,” said law professor George Cohen, the Faculty Senate chairman. “We want to be in a position to work with whoever is there.”

But Cohen said widespread antipathy to Dragas persists on campus: “There are a lot of faculty who are very upset and would not favor her being confirmed.”

Dragas wrote in an e-mail that she is looking forward, not backward, and that she hopes to find common ground with all U-Va. supporters.

“Those who have continued the controversy point to the echoes of their own words as evidence of a two-way confrontation and to their unwillingness to compromise as proof of a deadlock,” Dragas wrote. “Neither exists.”

The bill to confirm Dragas and dozens of other McDonnell appointees, SJ 324, requires a simple majority vote of both houses. Opponents may have a better shot of derailing the bill in the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans but is evenly split between the parties, than in the GOP-dominated House. The bill will be considered Tuesday in the Senate’s Privileges and Elections Committee, a Senate Republican aide said Monday morning. Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), the committee chairman, did not reply to a request for comment.

Sen. Janet D. Howell (Fairfax), the committee’s ranking Democrat, opposes confirmation, as do a number of other Senate Democrats. She predicted a close vote but said Dragas could benefit from her powerful connections.

“I don’t think that Helen Dragas is indispensable to U-Va.,” said Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), another committee member who is opposed.

Deeds, who represents areas in and around Charlottesville, dismissed the notion that the campus is healing. “I can tell you that there’s no scab on this wound,” Deeds said. “People bring it up on social occasions. They bring it up when they see me on the street. People are just adamant that she has to go.”

Many in Charlottesville believe Dragas will win confirmation.

“Dragas’ supporters will move as quickly as possible to confirm her, and there’s little chance of convincing legislators to vote otherwise,” the Cavalier Daily student newspaper, which opposes Dragas’ confirmation, said this month in an editorial.

This story has been updated.

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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