Virginia Senate leaders’ message to Helen Dragas: Don't mess up again


Helen Dragas attends a Board of Visitors meeting in June at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. (Steve Helber/AP)
Robert McCartney
Columnist January 16, 2013

For Helen Dragas, the controversial board chief at the University of Virginia, the meeting must have felt akin to being called into the principal’s office.

On Monday afternoon, Dragas sat down for a private conversation with the two politicians in the strongest position to decide whether she gets to keep her job as rector of Virginia’s flagship public university.

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

Dragas was meeting with the top party officials of the Senate — Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) and Minority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax).

They told Dragas there were enough votes in the Senate to confirm her reappointment to a four-year term as a member of U-Va.’s Board of Visitors, according to three people familiar with the conversation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was confidential.

That was positive news for the rector, because she faced stronger opposition in the Senate than in the House of Delegates.

Then came the slap down and the warning: Dragas must in no way view her expected confirmation as an “affirmation” of her disastrous, failed effort in June to oust U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan, the individuals said.

Moreover, there would be major “unhappiness” in the legislature if Dragas were seen as trying to push out or somehow undercut Sullivan in the future.

The politicians said the legislature wasn’t trying to improperly interfere with the Board of Visitors, but the message was unmistakable: Don’t mess up again.

The conversation, described here publicly for the first time, reflected the ambivalence that the legislature feels about keeping Dragas in her prestigious post as rector. (Dragas did not respond to two e-mails requesting comment.)

The fact is, if anyone ever deserved to lose her job for poor performance, it’s Helen Dragas.

The attempted coup that she engineered against Sullivan, undertaken for reasons that still haven’t been fully explained, damaged U-Va.’s national reputation. It cost time and money, and led U-Va. to receive a formal warning that it might lose its accreditation.

“In the business world, any board chair who so needlessly disrupted planning and operations, improperly manipulated board processes, and diminished the enterprise’s reputation would be long gone. No one would argue for a second chance,” said a statement sent to legislators by U-Va. Alumni for Responsible Corporate Governance, a group opposed to Dragas’s reappointment.

Just a few weeks ago, Republicans and Democrats were predicting that Dragas had little chance of winning confirmation.

But the mood shifted in her favor as legislators were quietly lobbied by top politicians and campaign donors, according to politicians and other observers. A key Senate committee delivered a surprisingly lopsided 12 to 3 vote in her favor Tuesday.

“Very quietly behind the scenes, there’s been a really organized campaign in support of her,” said Quentin Kidd, a professor at Christopher Newport University.

The change illustrates Dragas’s status as someone who enjoys a special kind of protection, according to Virginia politicians and other analysts. She’s a member, or at least a close associate, of an elite group of top business-friendly politicians and corporate executives who often guide the state’s affairs — and they take care of their own.

The bipartisan group includes major Dragas backers Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D). They appear to have acted both out of personal loyalty to Dragas and deference to the large campaign contributions made by her and her allies in the business community.

Dragas, chief executive of a family home building company, has made large campaign donations herself. In addition, she’s on the board of Dominion Virginia Power, whose executives are among the state’s largest contributors. She enjoys the backing of another major donor, biotech magnate and former U-Va. board member Randal J. Kirk.

The politico-business elite also felt it was important to save Dragas to demonstrate that it hasn’t lost control over the future of Virginia higher education.

Broadly speaking, the top business community wants to push public schools to be more entrepreneurial about raising revenue and cutting costs. It also wants them to focus more on such subjects as engineering and computer science, and less on “non-strategic” subjects like, say, classics or German.

“I think the reason the business community has rallied around Helen Dragas is they see this as a larger battle. If they lose on this, then they’ve been set back in their larger effort to reshape Virginia colleges and universities,” Kidd said.

One can argue either way about whether the elite’s strategy is desirable. It’s certain, however, that Dragas doesn’t deserve to be its advocate.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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