U-Va. Board of Visitors considers limiting public dissent

Members of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors are considering a policy that would limit their own ability to speak freely about decisions the board makes, including when members disagree with those decisions.

If the board adopts the draft “statement of expectations,” the policy could require board members to defer external questions to the board’s rector, avoid public dissent about board decisions and limit their ability to individually request information about the university. The draft was discussed by a special committee of the board created to improve governance after the leadership crisis at Virginia’s flagship university two years ago, when a split on the board and with the U-Va. president became public and acrimonious.

“After robust discussion of an issue, we strive to reach a consensus on the merits,” read the draft, which was developed ahead of a committee meeting Tuesday and stated that Visitors should vote their conscience but then not oppose the results. “Visitors shall publicly support, or at the very least not openly oppose, the Board’s action as a strong, visible consensus facilitates successful execution of policy and strategy.”

Read the draft statement of expectations

The draft

The University of Virginia's Board of Visitors met Wednesday to discuss a new "statement of expectations" for board members, a draft of which suggested that board members not be allowed to speak out publicly against board decisions or speak to the media without approval from the board's leader. Read the draft statement.

Board members discussed the draft and plan to refine the document, which must be approved by the committee before it goes to the full board. The General Assembly has required the board to create a code of conduct or ethics.

Some critics suggested that the proposals went too far.

Visitor Edward D. Miller said boards shouldn’t always be in lock-step with the administration. He said members should be asking questions and looking at things from different perspectives to come to the best decision. And if board members disagree with a vote, Miller said, they should have the right to say so.

Del. David I. Ramadan (R-Loudoun), who has read the draft policy, said it suggests that board members leading Thomas Jefferson’s university suppress their constitutional freedom of speech.

“If it’s not censorship, I don’t know what is,” Ramadan said. “If it’s not walking away from the mission of Jefferson, I don’t know what is. . . . It’s absurd.”

Some saw the draft guidelines as routine, putting into writing the accepted practice of many boards. John Alexander, vice president of U-Va.’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said it is a logical outgrowth of the efforts to improve the board’s coordination.

“I understand the reaction some might have, that this would stifle debate,” Alexander said. “To me, it’s just how the board communicates their policy once they’ve reached a decision.”


The Rotunda at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. (Norm Shafer/For the Washington Post)

In 2012, deep rifts on the board became public when it fired the university’s president and then hired her back in the midst of a campus uproar. Since then, university leaders have taken steps to improve governance.

But at the institution Jefferson founded with the loftiest of ideals — the pursuit of knowledge, freedom of speech, the need for an educated citizenry to ensure a thriving democracy — change is loaded with the weight of history.

“I truly can’t imagine being forbidden from answering questions from a young student — or explaining to a legislator — the votes I take on their behalf,” said Visitor Helen Dragas. “Censorship has no place at any institution of higher learning, much less one funded with public tax dollars. Gag-order governance is a perversion of Jeffersonian ideals.”

In a congenial discussion Tuesday, members of the committee talked about the draft’s wording and described it as a social compact between the board members that ensures they are working in partnership with the school.

“We have responsibility collectively as the board,” said John Nau, who co-chairs the committee. “There is no attempt here to step on individual rights. But the individual needs to be able to function within the context of the operating board.”

Rector George Keith Martin said the meeting was “very productive” and allowed board members to refine the language of the document.

“The goal of the committee is to satisfy the legal requirements applicable to the Board of Visitors while striking an appropriate balance between managing the work of the board and the individual rights of the Visitors,” Martin said.

Ramadan bristled at the idea that Visitors should isolate themselves from the university and speak only in a unified voice. The draft policy said that “requests by individual Visitors for institutional information should be rare.”

“Jefferson didn’t set this up as an elite university,” Ramadan said, noting that board members are appointed by the governor and approved by the General Assembly to represent the public. “This is a university for the people of Virginia.”

The draft suggested that if members did not comply with the policy, they could be sanctioned or removed from the board.

“The thing I found most disturbing in the document was that the governance committee will monitor the behavior of individual board members and take appropriate action if necessary,” Miller said. He said the presumption on boards is that members have integrity and act in the best interests of the institution.

“No question everyone can express their personal opinion,” Nau said at the meeting. Vigorous debate is important and encouraged, he said, before a decision is made. “The problem is when that’s done in the external marketplace, it’s construed as conflict, or the view of the board. That can’t happen.”

Susan Svrluga is a reporter for the Washington Post, covering higher education for the Grade Point blog.
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