In January, the Virginia General Assembly will decide whether to block the June appointment of Helen Dragas, the divisive and tone-deaf rector of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors, to another four-year term. Dragas was the central bad actor in the board’s attempt in June to remove U-Va.’s accomplished president, Teresa A. Sullivan. Sullivan has been reinstated, but Dragas continues to be a corrosive influence at the university. Ending her tenure is particularly urgent now that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the accrediting body for U-Va., has warned the university that it is not in compliance with two important governance standards.
The SACS warning demonstrates that the board debacle continues to jeopardize U-Va.’s “institutional integrity.” No accrediting agency uses such words of warning lightly.
The General Assembly should set aside the usual political and personal entanglements and decline to confirm Dragas’s reappointment. Without confirmation, her tenure ends immediately, and the university can begin to put the events of the past seven months behind it.
The case against confirmation could not be more clear-cut. Internal e-mails and other sources reveal that Dragas manipulated board rules and procedures to force Sullivan’s resignation. As she gathered the votes to oust Sullivan, she asserted her claim — individually rather than in a required board meeting where the question could have been debated — that most board members supported the firing. Thus the board never held a vote on removal.
This record and the public opposition to her cannot be forgotten or excused. Attempts by Dragas and her few supporters to sweep everything under the rug — including an unwillingness to offer a credible explanation for the June events generally and an astounding lack of responsiveness to the SACS inquiry specifically — reflect a view that accountability in academic governance does not matter; that learning from board mistakes is not worthwhile; and that trying to vindicate one person’s self-damaged reputation trumps restoring U-Va.’s reputation and integrity.
What justification does Ms. Dragas offer for her dismal performance as rector?
When asked by one newspaper why she insists on trying to stay, Dragas replied, “I stayed on the board because I know the important issues the university has to address and is addressing.” Such obliviousness, however, shows precisely the opposite — a failure to comprehend that she was the central cause of the most significant problems confronting U-Va. Those problems include a loss of trust and competence at the governing level; the board’s loss of legitimacy and its strained working relationships with top staff and faculty; the ongoing impairment of U-Va.’s institutional integrity; and the embarrassing accreditation inquiry.
The crisis at U-Va. has become a test case for all public universities. What is more important: the institutional integrity of a great university, or the support of a politically well-connected board chair?
In the business world, similar mistakes would quickly lead to board member departures, voluntary or not. If this crisis involved a private, for-profit corporation, a shareholder lawsuit would already have forced the resignation of those responsible. The members of the General Assembly must exercise their oversight responsibility to achieve a similar result at U-Va.
Removing Dragas would not instantly end the board crisis, but it would signal to SACS that its warning is being taken seriously. Her departure would also remove a growing impediment to recruiting that U-Va. faces in the intensely competitive marketplace for professors and graduate students.
The mess at U-Va. makes improving the selection process for board members at all Virginia’s public universities a long-term priority. That debate will take more than one legislative session. Rejecting Dragas’s confirmation is the essential first step.
Virginia voters are watching. So is SACS. So is everyone else who cares about higher education in Virginia and the United States.
The writers are members of U-Va. Alumni for Responsible Corporate Governance.