Q&A with Helen Dragas, former rector of the University of Virginia governing board

Helen Dragas of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors sat down for an interview with The Washington Post in late June as she prepared to make the transition from leading the board to being a regular member. She also answered the following questions in writing:

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Your tenure as rector at U-Va. will end at the end of the month, and you will stay on as a board member. What sort of role will you play on the board going forward? Do you think your involvement with the university will change?

I want to continue as a volunteer to make a contribution, though the role of rector is obviously different. It comes with a lot more responsibilities and restraints than those of a regular board member.

We are still tackling the same big challenge: How do we innovate to provide a world-class education at a price that Virginia families can afford? I want to help drive a solution to that problem.

You were the university’s first female rector. What do you hope your legacy will be?

That will have to be for others to decide, but I started out just wanting long-term strategic and financial planning to be actual operating principles, not just PR buzz words. Sadly, U.Va. has been drifting and even losing ground in recent years, and the independent Art & Science assessment said that pretty plainly.

It validated the board’s sense of urgency to have us operating from a long-term plan that pushes us to set and keep real priorities. It’s the only path to affordable excellence in this evolving world.

The good news is that we’re now on the path to accomplishing this work.

You have alluded to yourself as being a much-needed “independent voice” on the board, unafraid to challenge the status quo. Have you always been that voice, or is this something that evolved over time? Why is it important for the board to have independent voices?

I think that board members should provide accountability and oversight — even when it isn’t always popular to do so. When Thomas Jefferson founded U-Va., he intentionally established a group of detached, objective “visitors” as a system of checks and balances to ensure the interests of its citizen-owners remained the central focus.

That’s what helps keep public universities public.

While members of the board and the administration have publicly stated that they are dedicated to moving beyond the events of last summer, many members of the university community feel that they cannot do so without a full explanation of what happened and why. For the historical record, and as an explanation to the university community: What exactly happened last June between the board and U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan?

I think the burden is on those who still want events rehashed to say – specifically – how doing so helps this president’s administration. Responsible boards follow law and policy and keep personnel matters as respectfully private as possible. That’s been unsatisfying to critics, but that’s the decision we are sticking by.

I do want to make a point, however. There’s a lot of focus on what the people in the “university community” think. Their views do count. But it’s also the entire Commonwealth’s University. It belongs to the people in this state who pay faculty and staff salaries and whose taxes bought the bricks that built the school and created its priceless brand.

Their voices deserve the same attention.

Nearly a year ago, you defended the board’s actions and said: “In my view, we did the right thing, the wrong way.” Do you believe that sentiment today? Why?

We did the right thing in that we pushed for needed planning and change. We did it the wrong way by not understanding that when you do so at a high-profile, public institution, you have to communicate with the public. A lot. That seems clear in hindsight, but it was a lesson I learned the hard way.

This experience highlights the tension that Board members feel between our roles as university boosters and promoters, and need to communicate publicly about problems that don’t necessarily show the University in the best light. We should have communicated more openly, and much earlier, about the faults and concerns we had.

However, for those who thought that business as usual was acceptable, I suggest three things:

First, calculate our tuition increases over the last decade. Compare them to real family income growth in Virginia.

Second, read the Art & Science full assessment. It’s fairly unflattering. Prospective students say we’re “elitist” and unwelcoming; we’re lagging our peers in research funding and philanthropy.

Third, research our students’ performance on a recent state proficiency test. Only 8 percent of our fourth-year College of Arts and Sciences students tested “highly competent” in writing while 61 percent tested “competent”. We underperformed drastically in what should be our greatest strength — communications skills.

Change was needed, even if it wasn’t welcomed, and I didn’t drive it as well as I should have. The biggest point is that, working with the president, we’ve made real progress since, and we’re on track to continue.

In the past year, you have been publicly attacked, criticized, satirized and questioned. Hundreds called for your resignation. When you took the stage at commencement this year, a few boos came from the audience. Did you ever consider stepping down from the board? Did the criticism ever shake your convictions on the issue? How have you responded to your critics?

Naturally, I thought about the trade-offs I was making. I’m a mother, wife and business owner who is here as a volunteer. But I was appointed to represent the Commonwealth and I believe that keeping public universities affordable — and public — is an issue that deserves unwavering commitment.

My father, who ran our business before me, was a big influence. As a child, he survived war and famine. He taught me a lot about resilience, endurance and sticking it out through tough times. And in those dark moments when I doubted, I’d keep coming back to the idea that boards of governance should govern and should not relinquish an insistence on keeping a public university a public asset.

And, lots of people have been very supportive and encouraging as well. They want U-Va. to be both excellent and affordable. They just don’t organize themselves to sign petitions or send e-mails to the Governor.

Last June, you composed and released a list of 10 “serious strategic challenges” that alarmed [the board] about the direction of the university” that included finding alternative revenue sources, prioritizing expenses, innovatively using technology, competitively paying faculty, increasing accountability for academic quality and productivity and fortifying the university’s communications functions. Which of the 10 challenges has the university made the most strides in confronting and how? Are there any new challenges that you would add to the list? Do you feel that these challenges will be properly addressed in the strategic plan?

We’ve made some headway on attracting great faculty, a little in the technology arena and a great deal in the communications function. We won’t know about academic quality improvements until we see updates to the proficiency stats we were briefed on in early 2012 — an issue that should be of real concern to accrediting bodies like SACS.

The main accomplishment over the last year has been working with the president to create a blueprint for the future — which is what has always been the board’s driving focus. Truly substantive planning for the long-term welfare of any college or university is a primary governance responsibility.

In creating our plan, I believe we have to recommit to our mission as a true public institution, a product of nearly 200 years of public investment and an asset that belongs to the Commonwealth. Therefore, tuition increases are not and cannot be the primary way we maintain quality; otherwise, we simply buy into the pervasive myth that excellence is only for the elite.

We shouldn’t consider any strategies that don’t lead to affordable excellence. Instead, I think we should maximize other sources of income, set priorities based on this institution’s unique strengths, and direct our spending accordingly. Recent studies by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni both confirmed that college and university spending on non-educational expenses is out of control in Virginia. We have to do much better to make U.Va.’s academic experiences more accessible to all.

You seem to have gained confidence following your confirmation by state lawmakers in January. Is that true? What did you learn from that process?

I just decided to continue fighting for what I believed. And during the confirmation, I heard from a lot of lawmakers privately that while they didn’t care for the messiness of the process, they understood the need to solve the big challenge of keeping world-class education affordable and that governance boards should govern.

Does the board operate differently now than it did in previous years? Has it, in any way, gained more power?

Effective board operations are way more important than people’s speculation on “power.” And I think we’ve made real strides to improve the way we work. We now live-stream our meetings — which a local citizen suggested to me — and we are more transparent in our decision-making. Faculty members now serve on every committee. I broke a tradition of reappointing committee chairs year after year, so we now look to see if someone on the board might arise as a better choice. Overall, we are much more engaged in setting the long-term course of the university and creating meeting agendas focused squarely on important policy issues. I think all of this makes us a better governing body.

Last summer, Sullivan was criticized for a culture of “incremental, marginal change.” This academic year, Sullivan and her team brought a number of plans to the board for approval, including paying faculty more competitively and setting up a strategic investment fund. Often, the board seems to take more time than expected to back these sorts of plans, leading some to ask: Is the board getting in the way of transformative change at a critical time at U-Va.?

We have no interest in moving slowly, but we think we have to get the big questions right, especially when they affect quality and cost to students. We make responsible policy decisions – like wanting to know how we’re going to fund big, long-term expenditures like faculty salary increases before we commit to them. That’s what the citizens of the Commonwealth expect governing boards to do.

In the aftermath of last June’s crisis, Sullivan agreed to quarterly reviews of her performance. She also signed a contract extension that included a long list of tasks and expectations. And then there was the back-and-forth over Sullivan’s goals for this school year, with Sullivan at one point alleging micromanagement. Do you trust Sullivan? Do your fellow board members trust her? Why is this level of monitoring needed?

The board does govern more vigorously now, as the times call for. But people can certainly have differing viewpoints and still trust each other. I believe it is incumbent upon us to offer our best thoughts on policy and accountability measures that reflect the broader interests of Virginians, not just the voices of those directly connected to Charlottesville.

That’s the right set of checks and balances for a public university.

A higher-education consultant recently concluded that U-Va. is at an “inflection point.” Do you agree? Where do you believe the university needs to go from here?

We are, and we have been for some time, as validated by the Art and Science report. Either we get the long-term financial picture, role of technology and our educational quality right, or we continue to fall behind. Either we recommit to affordable excellence, or we risk becoming perceived as even more elite and unwelcoming. It’s that simple.

Like at many flagship schools, U-Va. has seen state support fill less and less of its overall budget. What funding obligation does the state have to U-Va.? And as the university relies more heavily on donations, tuition and other forms of revenue, do you worry about it becoming “privatized “or straying from its public mission?

I worry first and foremost about keeping this university affordable and accessible to middle- and low-income families, and about how to keep our core academic quality world class. Higher education is a good public investment, but I’ll leave the question of funding proportions up to people we elect to make those decisions.

But like every organization or family, we have to work with the funding we’ve got and be creative about other revenue sources. Art & Science documented that we could make strong improvements in earning gifts and research funds. Let’s start there and then see what other improvements and ideas can also generate revenue and keep us from hitting the yearly “default” button to raise tuition.

I do see a very real danger of people using the events of the last summer to justify trying to move towards “privatization” – higher tuition, higher out-of-state enrollment, private sector board member selection, and an even more elitist strategy. They will argue that the governance model is broken, when in fact, the independent Art & Science report proves that the Board of Visitors was pushing for much-needed change and accountability. Or that there’s not enough funding, when various studies show we have room to improve how we earn and spend our funds.

The Board should be more independent, not less.

You have repeatedly taken a hard stance against increasing tuition in any way. Can U-Va. be a world-class, high-ranking institution without charging more? Are you okay with U-Va. losing ground to other universities if it enables the school to hold down tuition costs?

The founding mission of this university was to make sure that everyone had an opportunity to learn — regardless of their income. I simply don’t buy the premise that tuition has to go up every year — and at rates higher than family incomes — in order to provide excellence. I don’t want us to concede to the “raise tuition vs. fall behind myth” until and unless we’ve looked much more rigorously at all other options. We can save and earn money in hundreds of ways.

What’s next for you? Do you have any aspirations to run for political office?

None.

 
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