Wealthy U-Va. alumni pushing for major change to Board of Visitors selection process

Steve Helber/Associated Press - Students walk earlier this year at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — A group of prominent University of Virginia alumni, mostly New York financiers, is lobbying candidates for Virginia governor to change how the U-Va. Board of Visitors is selected.

Its goal is to have at least eight of the board’s 17 voting members chosen from a pool assembled by U-Va. alumni and supporters instead of the governor filling those spots with major campaign donors and political allies, said Jeffrey C. Walker, chairman of the U-Va. Council of Foundations, who is leading the effort.

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This is just one step that the coalition wants to take to fix what it believes are major dysfunctions at the university, some of which contributed to last summer’s leadership crisis, according to council documents obtained this week by The Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request. Some members also believe that for U-Va. to have a “solid financial model,” the elite flagship university must raise in-state tuition and push the state for more funding for student aid.

The group’s top priority is changing the selection process for the U-Va. Board of Visitors.

Currently, the governor makes board appointments, which are then approved more than six months later by the General Assembly. The 17-member board must contain at least 12 U-Va. graduates.

The U-Va. Alumni Association is allowed to make at least three recommendations for each open seat, but Walker said that during the tenure of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), not enough of those recommendations have resulted in appointments.

“We’re trying to get the university community — and multiple voices of the University of Virginia community — to be heard,” said Walker, a former chairman and chief operating officer of a private equity firm. “We just want a governor who is a partner.”

Paul Shanks, a spokesman for McDonnell, said that the Board of Visitors is one of the most competitive boards to join. State officials “carefully review and consider all recommendations” from alumni associations, he said. U-Va. board members John L. Nau III and Allison Cryor DiNardo were recommended by the alumni association, he said, and last year McDonnell appointed Victoria D. Harker, a previous alumni association chairwoman. The group of 17 voting members currently includes only people appointed or reappointed by McDonnell.

The U-Va. board has been under scrutiny since last summer, when its leaders ousted President Teresa A. Sullivan. The board reversed its decision when alumni, faculty and others protested and demanded more involvement in such actions.

Since then, a number of faculty members, students, alumni, lawmakers and higher-education activists have called for a sweeping reform of the board.

Walker and other alumni have decided to take on that task by building relationships with the commonwealth’s gubernatorial candidates: Terry McAuliffe (D) and Ken Cuccinelli II (R).

A U-Va. board member has been asked to reach out to Cuccinelli, but Walker said this week that the group had neither met nor talked with Cuccinelli.

McAuliffe has been “very responsive” to many of the group’s ideas, Walker wrote in a July 23 e-mail to a New York hedge-fund manager he was trying to recruit. Walker wrote that he and two well-known New York hedge-fund managers — Paul Tudor Jones and Lee Ainslie — had a conference call with McAuliffe and his policy coordinator and asked for a commitment to using recommendations from the university’s “key constituents.” A spokesman for Jones declined to comment, and a spokesman for Ainslie said he could not be reached Thursday.

Soon after the conference call, Walker wrote, McAuliffe modified his higher education policy on his Web site and promised “proper representation on governing boards” by involving “alumni, staff, students, and other members of college and university communities” in the selection process.

A McAuliffe spokesman, Josh Schwerin, would not elaborate on how that would work.

In the July 23 e-mail, Walker wrote that he was trying to bring a number of prominent alumni into the effort, especially those who live in Virginia: “The more influential names we have associated with our shared voice the more likely we are going to have the future Governor’s ear.”

Walker also asked his recruit to “please make a contribution to Terry McAuliffe’s campaign and let me know when you do so I can consolidate the tracking. . . . You can give as much as you like (the state of Virginia does not limit campaign contributions).”

In an interview, Walker said the alumni effort is focused on using passionate voices, not money, to make change.

“And, trust me — we haven’t had any voice, we feel, yet,” Walker said.

Walker said Sullivan and Board of Visitors leader George Martin have been informed of his group’s efforts. He wrote in the e-mail that both are “very supportive and think our efforts will be very helpful to the University.”

McGregor McCance, a university spokesman, declined to comment on Walker’s efforts, but he praised the current politically appointed board.

“President Sullivan and her team have worked to build positive, productive relationships with members of the Board, and they appreciate the leadership of Rector George Keith Martin and the constructive working relationships with Board members,” McCance said in a statement.

But outside the boardroom, skepticism remains.

“Virtually everywhere we all go and to whomever we speak, within and outside of the University community, the question which is raised on a consistent basis relates to governance at the University,” Walker wrote in a six-page memo to the Board of Visitors, dated June 18, that summarized a May meeting of foundation representatives, administrators, deans and some board members. “The alumni are even more concerned about the University than ever; they are worried about its governance issues and they are less likely to contribute to the University until they are convinced the governance issues have been resolved.”

Walker is chairman of the U-Va. Council of Foundations, an umbrella group that oversees the university’s more than two dozen private foundations.

Those spearhead fundraising and play a substantial role in setting the university’s financial priorities.

The memo lays out the plan for at least eight of the 17 board members to be selected from “pools of candidates recommended by representative groups from the University, such as the Alumni Association and the Council of Foundations.”

“Such a move would knit the University together even more closely as it navigates the many challenges facing higher education today,” the memo says.

The memo also addresses U-Va.’s finances, commending the school for operating with efficiency. But it argues that cost-cutting, fundraising and finding new sources of revenue — all as state funding continues to make up just a single-digit percentage of the overall budget — will not be enough. It advocates for raising in-state student tuition.

That memo was followed by four pages from Helen E. Dragas, former leader of the Board of Visitors, who opposed tuition increases, pushed for greater accessibility and insisted that U-Va. “remain a public university that belongs to the Commonwealth and its citizens.”

 
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