U-Va. Faculty Senate still lacks confidence in Board of Visitors


University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas smiles as she talks with board of visitors member W. Haywood Fralin, during a meeting at the rotunda at the school June 26, 2012 in Charlottesville. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
March 14, 2013

Members of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors have asked the Faculty Senate to rescind its vote of no confidence in the board, according to the senate’s leader, a move that came in June amid the failed ouster of President Teresa Sullivan.

“We want to get to a place where the faculty as a whole could have confidence,” said George Cohen, chairman of the senate. “My hope is that it wouldn’t be a hotly contested thing, that everyone would agree it was time. . . . It doesn’t look like we’ll be able to do that by June.”

The board and faculty leaders have taken steps to work together and better communicate in the wake of the campus leadership crisis, Cohen said, but serious concerns remain about how the board operates. That progress wasn’t helped by news this month that the board’s leader, Rector Helen Dragas, gave Sullivan a detailed list of 65 goals for the remainder of the school year.

The Faculty Senate questioned Dragas’s actions, prompting her to respond: “I trust that our faculty, as a whole, are able to inspire our students to a high level of critical analysis, especially in emotionally charged situations.”

On Thursday came another reminder of last summer’s turmoil, as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a 20-page report based on interviews with Sullivan, administrators and faculty members, in addition to the previous president and former administrators. The board declined to participate, though Dragas answered questions in writing.

The committee, composed of professors from other institutions, was unable to find a full explanation for why board leaders asked Sullivan to step down. But they concluded that the crisis could have been avoidedhad the board conducted an “intensive evaluation” of Sullivan or consulted with faculty members about her performance.

The AAUP suggested several changes for the board: add a voting or non-voting faculty member to the board, allow faculty to pick which professors advise board committees, better train new board members, and allow faculty to help evaluate the president’s performance.

The report criticizes Dragas, writing that she had not fully informed herself before acting. It was also pointed out that Dragas runs a “successful medium-sized enterprise” and likely does not have experience with “large, complex organizations or the administration of higher education.”

“[T]he events of last June might be reasonably explained in this way: A headstrong rector, imbued with a belief in ‘engaged trusteeship,’ strove to remove a president who failed to conform to her image of bold academic captaincy,” the report states. “She did so with single-minded zeal: without informing herself of the essentials in the underlying matters she claimed to give rise to that drive.”

The U-Va. Board of Visitors had a chance to respond to a draft of the report. Dragas sent a letter to the association — which is included in the report — that said a board committee would review the report’s suggestions.

“While you invite us to correct the multiple errors of fact and comment on your treatment of the issues,” Dragas wrote, “to do so would rehash past events and repeat corrections that are part of the public record.”

Rehashing the past is something that the AAUP suggests needs to happen: “[T]here are valuable lessons in this experience both for the University of Virginia and for the larger academic community . . . it is important that they be learned.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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