“Clearly, I think change was needed,” Dragas said during her first lengthy interview since the events of last summer. “We could have been much more savvy, sophisticated, and open and communicative about it. But the good news is that the president and the board are all working together now in all of these areas to move the university forward.”
But forward to where? One year after the crisis, administrators and board members generally agree that U-Va. should be a world premier, trendsetting institution, but they sometimes differ on how best to achieve that goal. They will have to decide this summer as they complete a long-term strategic plan for the university.
U-Va. is at an inflection point, an outside consultant recently warned. Like many universities, it needs to fix its business model, invest in the undergraduate experience, hire a new generation of faculty, use technology in innovative ways, find more research funding and grow its endowment. Otherwise, the consultant cautioned, the school Thomas Jefferson founded risks falling behind its peers.
“There is a sense of urgency that we set our course,” Dragas said.
By many, Dragas is still seen as a stubborn and micromanaging leader who should have resigned after her failed attempt to topple Sullivan. She has been the recipient of nasty e-mails and online comments, criticizing everything from her business practices to her fashion choices.
At graduation in late May, a few students booed as Dragas took the stage. Meanwhile, Sullivan was showered with standing ovations, hearty cheers and glowing compliments. The speaker at an ROTC ceremony told graduates to emulate Sullivan’s “grace under pressure.”
To a smaller but much more influential cohort — one that includes many of Virginia’s power players — Dragas has proved herself to be someone willing to bravely take on the entrenched state university and stand firm in her beliefs.
Although Dragas’s tenure as rector of the U-Va. Board of Visitors ended June 30, she will remain on the board for three more years.
“In the really dark moments, I would just keep coming back to this thought that boards of governance should govern and that they should not relinquish an insistence on keeping public universities public,” Dragas said. “I just felt that it was a principle worth standing for.”
Soon after the board reinstated Sullivan on June 26, 2012, administrators at the university launched a strategic planning process — something that was at the heart of the crisis.