RICHMOND — For decades, Virginia governors filled the boards that oversee the state universities with supporters, donors and friends.
But in July, after a leadership crisis at the University of Virginia that drew rare attention to that school’s Board of Visitors, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) boosted the ranks of educators on governing boards at universities across the state.
Among McDonnell’s appointees to these boards are a teacher, a school librarian, retired university and community college presidents, and a half-dozen members of the faculty and staff at various schools.
“It makes sense to appoint people who have experience with the industry,’’ said Bob Holsworth, who was named to the Virginia Commonwealth University board after serving as a dean and professor at VCU.
McDonnell, more than halfway through a four-year term, still appointed plenty of prominent names from political and business circles to the boards of visitors.
Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard chief executive and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in California in 2010, was appointed to the James Madison University board. Jennifer Hunter, a senior vice president for Altria, the parent company of tobacco giant Philip Morris, was named to the Virginia State University board. John Luke, chief executive of the MeadWestvaco packaging company, who has donated $70,000 to McDonnell and his political action committee, Opportunity Virginia, will serve on the VCU board.
Boards of visitors have been under intense scrutiny since U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan was ousted and reinstated after 18 days of upheaval in June. The key players on the U-Va. board in the attempt to remove Sullivan were Rector Helen Dragas, a Virginia Beach developer, and Vice Rector Mark Kington, an Alexandria businessman. Kington has resigned.
About 200 people sit on the boards overseeing state universities, considered among the most coveted appointments a governor can offer. While the jobs do not come with money, they do come with prestige — and oftentimes football tickets and invitations to social gatherings.
Boards wield enormous power in hiring and firing the president, setting tuition rates, managing finances and approving faculty tenure. Members can serve two four-year terms.
McDonnell said that he looks for those who share his goals of reducing college costs, increasing slots for in-state students and making schools more efficient.
“I try to appoint people of immense ability that are team players . . . people who know how to run things and get results,” the governor said in an interview last week. “And I try to appoint people that fill certain niches.”
Some critics of the U-Va. board contended that it lacked the perspective of educators, which they said contributed to the crisis.
After threatening to fire the entire board if it did not resolve the turmoil in Charlottesville, McDonnell surprised many when he reappointed Dragas. He acknowledged that she had made mistakes but said she deserved to serve to help the school heal from the leadership crisis. Dragas was first appointed to the board in 2008 by McDonnell’s Democratic predecessor, Timothy M. Kaine, now a candidate for U.S. Senate.
Out of 87 university board members statewide appointed by Kaine who were eligible for reappointment, McDonnell has reappointed 27, according to the secretary of the commonwealth’s office.
Former governor James S. Gilmore III (R), who served from 1998 to 2002, said he tried to implement a new system for board appointments after he became frustrated with members who were political appointees with little desire to work. Gilmore said he met with each applicant to explain that he wanted members who would not be partisan, adversarial or controlling. “If they didn’t agree, then I didn’t reappoint them,’’ he said.
But after complaints that Gilmore’s picks also were partisan, his successor, Mark R. Warner (D), created an advisory board to help select members. McDonnell receives recommendations from that group, now headed by former state attorney general Jerry Kilgore (R), as well as from university presidents, board members and alumni.
McDonnell asked Linwood Rose, the outgoing president of JMU, to serve on the U-Va. board. “There obviously was concern,” Rose said, that there needed to be more higher-education expertise on the boards.
Fiorina, who recently moved to Virginia, said she was approached by the governor’s staff about serving on the JMU board, although she has no connection to the Harrisonburg school. Fiorina and McDonnell met in 2010 when he held a fundraiser for her campaign.
“I have long been interested in education. I believe public universities play a vital role in ensuring a competitive workforce for the 21st century,’’ she said in a statement. “I am old-fashioned enough to think that if a governor asks you to engage in public service, you should try and oblige.’’
While some were tapped by McDonnell or his staff to serve, others applied to be on the boards.
Mark Ingrao, president of the Greater Reston Chamber of Commerce, said the University of Mary Washington submitted his name after he had been involved in his alma mater for years. “It was the next step,’’ Ingrao said.
Other appointees included: unsuccessful Republican congressional candidate Keith Fimian (College of William and Mary); Dennis Treacy, executive vice president of Smithfield Foods (Virginia Tech); Teresa Carlson, vice president of Amazon Web Services, an affiliate of the online retailer that just announced it would expand in Virginia (VCU); and Frank B. Atkinson, longtime Republican activist and chairman of the lobbying powerhouse McGuireWoods (U-Va.).
McDonnell also named Dave Rexrode, a former campaign staff member who heads the Republican Party of Virginia, to the JMU board. “I’m there to help JMU,” Rexrode said. “It’s not a political job.”
Some criticized McDonnell for not reappointing Colin Campbell, the president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, to the William and Mary board.
State Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), who has close ties to the school, said he was disappointed about the Campbell decision but did not call the governor to complain. “It’s not the first time I disagreed with an appointment of a governor,’’ he said.
Campbell said in an interview that he did not ask the governor’s staff why he was not reappointed and that he would not speculate. “It’s really his prerogative,’’ he said.