From the archives

From the archives: Not the Governor's 'Foot Soldiers'

By Lawrence S. Eagleburger; Frank Batten Sr.; Hovey S. Dabney; George W. Johnson
Friday, May 21, 2010; 9:41 AM

This op-ed column originally appeared in The Washington Post on Oct. 20, 1999.

To whom do trustees of Virginia's public colleges and universities owe their allegiance? The Commonwealth's secretary of education, Wilbert Bryant, according to one reporter, declared at a recent meeting of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education that members of Virginia boards of visitors are "foot soldiers of the governor."

The secretary has since denied he ever made such a statement. But whether he was or was not so explicit is really beside the point. The whole thrust of his prepared remarks before the Blue Ribbon Commission makes it clear that he (and presumably the governor) regard boards of visitors as principally responsible to the governor and subject to his orders. In a word, they are indeed regarded as the governor's "foot soldiers," no matter what the secretary may have said to a reporter.

Foot soldiers follow orders. They are not encouraged to exercise individual initiative or personal judgment. And if board members are soldiers, then presumably there is an enemy out there somewhere--perhaps recalcitrant university and college presidents, undisciplined board members and "free thinking" faculty members. If war has not yet been declared against these folk, preparations for combat are clearly afoot. And as with all wars, everybody will lose, including the Commonwealth's superb system of higher education.

Virginia's public colleges and universities are widely acknowledged to be jewels in the crown of the state. Many are nationally recognized for excellence. Indeed, our system of higher education is arguably the best in the nation. Under such circumstances, what possible purpose can be served by the confrontation that surely awaits us if we continue down the present path?

It is in this context that we offer a modest proposal. Of course Virginia's boards of visitors must respect the governor's views, as they must the views of the legislature. But that does not mean slavish obedience. In fact, the members of these boards emphatically do not owe blind allegiance to any governor or college president. This is not because either is misguided, malevolent or bereft of good advice but simply because no one individual possesses the knowledge or judgment needed to manage these complex institutions.

Moreover, there is one call on trustees' allegiance that stands above that of either university president or governor. The allegiance of board members belongs to Virginia's students, both those enrolled now and those who will come to our campuses in the next century. If we do not fulfill our duty to young people, we will have failed our presidents, the governor and--ultimately--the Commonwealth's future.

But what about the individual members of the various boards of visitors? How do we ensure that they are up to the demands of the job? To some of us it appears there is a growing tendency to appoint political functionaries to the various boards who, to put it bluntly, bring with them little more than a very partisan and narrow point of view. The consequences are not particularly pretty: meetings disrupted by strident name-calling and a focus on minutiae at the expense of creative discussion and debate.

Given what we perceive as a growing threat to the good governance of our colleges and universities, we believe there is an urgent need for a reform in the way members of the various boards of visitors are selected and appointed. We need to restore to the selection process a means of ensuring that nominees are committed to the highest standards for our colleges and universities, and that they are men and women of judgment and integrity who are willing to set aside political or personal agendas.

An effective method to accomplish this goal would be to establish a nominating body consisting of former rectors of boards of visitors who are named jointly by the governor and the General Assembly. This group would be akin to the judicial screening panels found in many states. Members should have long terms to grant them a healthy measure of independence. They would be charged with reviewing the qualifications of candidates on a nonpartisan basis, and then passing along to the governor a list of three qualified individuals for each board opening. The final selection would remain the responsibility of the governor.

This proposal is not, of course, foolproof. Influence will always be marketed by politicians, their supporters and the general public. But this method would help deter any overt attempt to control boards.

In light of the events of the past several months, we believe the challenge to the concept of responsible and productive boards of visitors whose principal objective is to ensure a quality education for all Virginia's students cannot be ignored. If the only test for board appointment is allowed to be fealty to an individual, the inevitable result will be the degradation of the quality of the boards and the institutions they were appointed to strengthen.

Lawrence Eagleburger, a former U.S. secretary of state, is on the board of vistors at William and Mary. Frank Batten is former chairman of Landmark Communications and former vice chairman of the Virginia State Council of Higher Education. Hovey S. Dabney has served as chairman of Jefferson National Bank and as rector of the University of Virginia. George W. Johnson is a former president of George Mason University.

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