U-Va. board to meet for first time since crisis

As the governing board at University of Virginia meets this week for the first time since the campus was plunged into crisis, some faculty and alumni are calling for a thorough examination of the events that led to the failed ouster of President Teresa Sullivan.

Others want to just move on.

The divide has become a backdrop to an annual retreat of the U-Va. Board of Visitors, scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday at a Richmond hotel. It will be led by Rector Helen E. Dragas, with the help of an outside facilitator. Sullivan also is slated to speak.

The event will bring together officials who last met June 26 in the Rotunda of Virginia’s historic flagship university for an epic end to 18 days of turmoil and protest over secretive efforts by board leaders to remove Sullivan from office.

At that meeting — live-streamed and followed nationally by U-Va. supporters — the board took the highly unusual step of rehiring the president who its leaders, including Dragas, had forced out.

Seven weeks later, the board is making its first public effort to recover. Four new members will be at the table. Dragas wants to forge ahead. Sullivan has spoken of reconciliation, and some of her allies expect her to take a larger role with the 17-member board in the future.

But it is also clear that the June crisis has not been put to rest.

A group of 14 graduates released an open letter last week asking the board to use corporate governance principles to undertake a “painstakingly fair and civil” analysis of what happened. The U-Va. crisis will not end, the letter argues, until “board members finally explain candidly, to satisfy common sense, what really motivated them to act so precipitously.”

A deep look is needed to restore operational efficiency, as well as the institution’s reputation and the confidence of students, alumni and faculty, the letter says. The events of June were “in intention and effect, a boardroom coup,” it contends.

“There are a lot of questions that remain unanswered — and they need to be answered,” said Richard D. Marks, a business executive and one of the letter’s authors. The group includes eight lawyers, an artist, a college professor and two media executives. Ten of the 14 have served on university-related boards.

Asked to respond, Dragas issued a statement that suggested her focus would not be on the past. She requested her comments be used in full or not at all.

“Following the unanimous vote to reinstate President Sullivan,” Dragas wrote, “the board and the president have turned their attention to the responsibilities of leadership. We all have learned meaningful lessons that can only help us perform more effectively in our appointed responsibilities. It is past time to look forward, not back, and to focus on the challenges and opportunities facing U.Va. and that is what we are doing. The board retreat [this] week is an important milestone and will set the tone for the academic year that will commence in just a few short weeks.”

Other U-Va. board members did not reply to a reporter’s inquiry or declined comment.

At least one expert said that moving on may be the better option.

Generally, board retreats include reflections on past performance and goals for the year ahead, said Richard Novak, senior vice president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Following a crisis such as the one at U-Va., he said, some boards would take a what-was-learned approach while others might simply look to the future.

“I don’t think digging up recent events is going to be that helpful,” he said. “Personally, I think they should just go on from it.”

In a major aftershock, the university’s chief operating officer, Michael Strine, abruptly stepped down Tuesday amid continuing questions about his role in the leadership crisis. At least one person with knowledge of the situation said Strine was forced to resign.

The Faculty Senate sent Dragas and other board members a letter that suggested “a self-assessment” of events that led to the crisis.

“It’s not a matter of recrimination,” said Faculty Senate Chairman George M. Cohen, who noted that after-reports are common following such events as corporate crises and airline crashes. “It’s a matter of understanding what happened so we can make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Opening with lunch Wednesday at the Omni Richmond Hotel, the retreat is expected to address issues of governance and strategic planning and will be led in part by Terrence MacTaggart, a consultant and senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

New board members will undergo an orientation that begins Tuesday at the hotel. Many sessions are open to the public.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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