U-Va. board talks little of crisis, takes early steps on strategic plan

August 16, 2012

With no detailed examination of the crisis that threw University of Virginia into turmoil in June, the school’s president and governing board sought to lay the groundwork this week for a new effort in strategic planning.

The U-Va. Board of Visitors also took steps toward changing its own structure to become more effective and better define how the 17-member board interacts with President Teresa A. Sullivan.

The gathering Wednesday and Thursday here came seven weeks after a leadership crisis at the Charlottesville campus, where Sullivan was asked to resign and then reinstated after 18 days of anger, confusion and protest.

The episode brought state and national attention to Sullivan and U-Va. Rector Helen E. Dragas, the head of the governing board, and became a case study of challenges facing public higher education.

The retreat was the first board meeting since June, but members avoided all but general mentions of the crisis. Dragas opened the event with an acknowledgment of “the many difficulties” of the last few months.

“I again offer my sincere and personal apology for controversies that, at best, have been distractions from the important work ahead of us,” she said.

Dragas called the retreat an opportunity for the board to “reconcile our differences, rejuvenate our leadership and reshape our future outcomes.”

At retreat’s end, Dragas said: “It went great. We are very excited about the future.”

The retreat was mostly run by Dragas, but Sullivan answered questions from board members and gave a speech Thursday morning.

Sullivan described U-Va.’s national rankings and AAA bond rating and noted that it is “not in any financial crisis.” But she cited “weaknesses and threats” that she said must be addressed, including declining state funding, faculty pay competitiveness and other issues that could affect research, medical center support and student financial aid.

In the coming school year, Sullivan said priorities include efforts to improve faculty pay under a four-year plan, examine how the university replaces retiring faculty and increase quality care at the medical center.

Much of the gathering was facilitated by a higher-education consultant, Terrence MacTaggart, a senior fellow with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

At one point Thursday, members discussed the circumstances in which boards should be alerted to a university controversy. “If it has the potential to publicly embarrass the institution, the board needs to know about it,” said Linwood Rose, a new board member and former president of James Madison University.

Board member George K. Martin of Richmond noted that there is “a fine line between engagement and micromanagement.”

Martin is co-chairman of the board’s governance and engagement committee, which he said plans to survey board members for suggested improvements in how the board interacts with university leaders.

There was also talk about how long rectors should serve and whether a vice rector should automatically succeed the rector, as is now the case.

The board focused on strategic planning Wednesday, and Rose, a co-chairman of that committee, said the effort is in its early stages. He said he hoped a draft plan would be ready by next May — with some issues, such as faculty salaries and recruitment, addressed in the meantime. “We can begin to do some things now,” he said.

Afterward, George Cohen, chairman of the U-Va. Faculty Senate, said the event was noteworthy for what was missing: an open look at the crisis. “There was a kind of surreal quality to it,” Cohen said. “It was like the crisis that shall not be named.”

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