Lawmakers urge U-Va. Board of Visitors to abandon policy limiting dissent

Several state lawmakers are urging the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors to abandon a proposal that would block board members from publicly disagreeing with a board decision.

A draft of the “statement of expectations,” which was discussed at a committee meeting Wednesday, suggested that board members not be allowed to speak out publicly against board decisions or speak to the media without the approval of the board’s leader.

State Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax), who graduated from University of Virginia’s law school, called it particularly troubling that the board would consider instituting the policy at a university founded by Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence.

“To me, it’s absurd – it’s a public university,” Petersen said. “The whole point of having a Board of Visitors is to have discussions about the university. The idea that you would have some sort of gag order is ridiculous. This isn’t a private corporation.”

The outcry from some board members and legislators has prompted the committee to back away from the original proposal. On Friday afternoon, Rector George Martin promised significant revisions to address the First Amendment concerns that were raised.

The board developed the draft proposal with the help of a private consultant, Dick Chait, whose contract is capped at $200,000.

Del. David I. Ramadan (R-Loudoun) called the policy and the consultant’s price tag “absurd,” commenting that $200,000 “can educate how many Virginians? Versus spending it on a consultant who tells them to stifle the voices of the members of the board,” he said.

McGregor McCance, the university spokesman, said that Chait has worked with more private schools than public but has experience with both. His clients have included public institutions, such as Ohio State, Texas A&M, the UCLA Health System and the University of California at San Francisco. On the private side, Chait has worked with Dartmouth and Duke.

In February, Chait led a workshop with board members on governance and later talked with them about the results of anonymous surveys of board members and university leaders. He and two board members wrote the draft policy.

“I work with the Board and senior officers to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of governance,” Chait said in a statement. “This includes presenting and discussing a framework for exemplary governance, sharing best practices, conferring with Visitors and executives, and advising the leadership of both the Board and the University on matters related to governance.”

The governor of Virginia appoints board members to four-year terms, and they require the confirmation of the state Senate and House. After that, there are few checks on their authority.

Through his spokesman, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) declined to comment on the proposed policy.

Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), who has spoken out on a raft of liberal causes since taking office this year, similarly declined to take a decisive stance on the policy. Herring has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from U-Va.

“The attorney general obviously thinks transparency and accountability are keys to good governance, and hopefully anything that’s adopted will reflect that,” said his spokesman, Michael Kelly.

The draft was created to streamline governance after the leadership crisis at Virginia’s flagship university two years ago, when a split on the board and with the U-Va. president became public and acrimonious.

“After robust discussion of an issue, we strive to reach a consensus on the merits,” reads the draft, which in some places encourages dissent but only before a vote. “Visitors shall publicly support, or at the very least not openly oppose, the Board’s action as a strong, visible consensus facilitates successful execution of policy and strategy.”

Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who called a Board of Visitors appointment “one of the most sought-after boards in all of Christendom,” said the draft is “undemocratic.”

“People with a business background are used to getting things done quickly and efficiently, but everyone has the right to exercise their freedom of speech, especially in a public institution,” he said.

Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott) said that democracy thrives on dissent.

“You don’t put a muzzle on when you go out of the boardroom,” he said. “I can just imagine the hue and cry if the General Assembly said, ‘Hey, Board of Visitors: We want you to get along better’ ” and required this policy. “The folks in academia would go, ‘What? Are you kidding?’ ”

Jenna Portnoy covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
Susan Svrluga is a reporter for the Washington Post, covering higher education for the Grade Point blog.
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