Helen Dragas’s missteps show need to change makeup of U-Va. board

Robert McCartney
Columnist June 27, 2012

If this month’s fiasco at the University of Virginia has proved anything, it’s that success running a family construction company and writing checks to politicians doesn’t necessarily qualify you to oversee one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

The whole sorry episode could do some good if it leads the governor and the General Assembly to reform how the state chooses the U-Va. Board of Visitors, the 16-member panel with ultimate responsibility for the school. The plum appointments typically go to business people as rewards for supporting the winning candidates in political campaigns.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Exhibit A of this plainly dysfunctional system is, of course, Helen E. Dragas, who is U-Va.’s rector and, thus, the board’s chairman (at least until Sunday, when her term expires). She was utterly and properly humiliated Tuesday with the reversal of her grossly mismanaged effort to oust the university’s president, Teresa Sullivan.

Dragas originally secured the top spot on the board after parlaying mostly Democratic political connections — including about $70,000 of campaign contributions — into a series of state appointments. She is also president and chief executive of a home-building company in Hampton Roads founded by her father.

By all accounts, Dragas is a smart, effective businesswoman, known in particular for her tough-minded resolve. But she needlessly threw the university into turmoil when she failed to respect two rather fundamental rules of good business practice: Know your market, and communicate effectively.


Charlottesville, VA-June 26: University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas and Teresa Sullivan walk together from the president's residence to the Board of Visitors meeting where Sullivan was reinstated. (Norm Shafer/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Dragas and a handful of fellow plotters on the board forced Sullivan to resign because the president supposedly wasn’t moving fast enough to address admittedly serious financial and technological trends threatening U-Va. and other public universities. In particular, they wanted quick action to cut costs and embrace online learning.

In a powerful backlash, however, it emerged that deans, faculty members and Sullivan’s peers at other universities believed strongly that Sullivan was perfectly capable and serious about dealing with U-Va.’s strategic problems. Taking time for a new presidential search would just slow that process, they said.

“We see no evidence that President Sullivan is unwilling or unable to make the necessary adjustments and lead us through necessary change. . . . Losing President Sullivan would cause unnecessary delay,” Faculty Senate Chair George Cohen told a large crowd of Sullivan supporters here Tuesday, shortly before the board voted to reinstate the president.

Dragas and her allies made an even bigger error by failing to communicate effectively with pretty much everyone from start to finish. The news of Sullivan’s resignation surprised and shocked the campus, yet the announcement provided few specifics about the board’s reasons for acting.

Even worse, it quickly became clear that Dragas and her allies had portrayed the board’s view as unanimous when in fact some members were supportive of the president and no full board meeting was held to discuss the ouster. Heywood Fralin, one of Sullivan’s backers, said the crisis could have been avoided had he been “clever enough” to seek such a meeting.

The most likely explanation for the rector’s missteps is simply that she handled the matter unilaterally much as she would shove through a decision at her firm, Dragas Cos. Somewhere along the way, she forgot that a university works differently from a condominium builder.

“You have two different cultures represented here, academic and corporate, and there was a failure to communicate,” said Allen Lynch, a U-Va. professor of Russian politics and foreign policy.

Such problems are likely to arise when business people alone run the show. The board currently does not include a single representative of the faculty or staff or a professional academician from another institution.

“Unfortunately this is the model in many states where the doling out of positions on boards like this is one of the functions of the governor, and it’s like giving out ambassadorships at the federal level. You give them to donors, and sometimes that works okay, and sometimes it does not,” said Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities.

Rawlings believes that governing boards should have at least one faculty member and one student, plus at least one representative from a different university. That seems like a reasonable minimum. (U-Va. has a nonvoting student member.)

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) can start the reform process by declining to nominate Dragas for a second four-year term. Astonishingly, however, he hinted Wednesday that he might keep her in the job.

Echoing U-Va.’s new spin that everything is back to hunky-dory, McDonnell told reporters in Richmond that Dragas and Sullivan have “set the tone for working together in the future.”

Given Dragas’s professional background, however, she ought to understand this vital business principle: accountability. She created what she herself called a “near-death experience” for the university. That’s a mistake that ought to cost her the job. Cut her loose, governor.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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