Helen Dragas, U-Va. board rector, is on path to reappointment after committee vote

RICHMOND — The University of Virginia governing board leader, who last year lost a prolonged power struggle at the historic campus in Charlottesville, took a key step toward victory Tuesday in a battle to stay on the board.

The state Senate’s Privileges and Elections Committee easily approved legislation to confirm Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s reappointment of Helen E. Dragas to serve on the U-Va. Board of Visitors through June 2016. The action came after the committee rejected, 12 to 3, an amendment from Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) to block Dragas’s confirmation.

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The bill now heads to the full Senate, where its prospects for passage seem strong; the measure also is likely to win passage in the House of Delegates. Dragas is backed not only by McDonnell (R) but also by at least one of his Democratic predecessors, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner.

Even so, it is rare for the legislature to debate a gubernatorial appointment to a university board.

Dragas, the U-Va. rector, engineered a failed attempt to oust university President Teresa Sullivan in what is now seen as a textbook example of university governance gone awry. The 18-day drama last June began when Dragas demanded Sullivan’s resignation — claiming that the board wanted a change in leadership — and ended when the board voted unanimously to reinstate the president. The campus was engulfed in protest at the height of the crisis, with Dragas the focal point. For many faculty members and alumni, she remains a target of criticism.

Dragas has apologized for her missteps and pledged solidarity with Sullivan. The rector and her backers say it is time to turn the page. One Republican lawmaker who supported her confirmation praised Dragas for answering questions from many members of the General Assembly.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an appointee . . . who’s been more accessible to people on every side,” said Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (Harrisonburg), chairman of the Privileges and Elections Committee.

But her critics say the only way for the university to move on is for Dragas to step down.

Howell said her constituents have deluged her with criticism of Dragas since last summer, saying she failed as a board leader.

“Another reason I’ve heard over and over was the damage done to the reputation of the university,” Howell said, citing questions about U-Va. governance recently raised by an accrediting agency.

Others on the committee who opposed Dragas were Sens. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) and Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk). The committee’s Republicans all voted for Dragas, joined by a handful of Democrats, including J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (Fairfax). The vote for the bill was 12-2-1, with Howell abstaining because she said she didn’t want to oppose other appointees in the legislation.

Dragas, 51, a Virginia Beach businesswoman, was first appointed to the board by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) in 2008. Three years later, the board named her to a position once held by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison: U-Va. rector. She is the first woman to hold that title.

As rector, Dragas presides over a board with 17 voting members and serves as its spokeswoman. Should the General Assembly confirm her reappointment, Dragas would continue as rector through June and then serve three more years as a regular board member.

In Charlottesville, students and faculty members were more focused this week on the beginning of a new academic term than on the action in Richmond. Still, some professors said Dragas remains a polarizing figure.

David Leblang, chairman of the politics department, said her presence on the board could pose recruiting challenges for the university. He said eminent scholars who are considering coming to U-Va. want to know how last summer’s leadership crisis was resolved — a topic that Leblang said leads back to Dragas.

“These are things you don’t want to have to address when you’re trying to show off the university,” he said. “You don’t want to play defense.”

 
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