Last October, the president of an organization that advocates for governing boards to play a stronger leadership role at universities spoke at an orientation for new trustees of public universities in Virginia.

University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas and President 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)

A spokeswoman for the conference organizer said she didn’t know whether Dragas attended the one-hour session led by Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Dragas sought last month to oust U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan, then reversed her position. The rector, who chairs the U-Va. governing board, declined to comment on the fall board orientation.

If nothing else, the cast of characters at the annual Board of Visitors Orientation by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) provides a glimpse at some of the major players in the state’s higher education system.

University trustees are known as “visitors” in Virginia and appointed by the governor, currently Robert F. McDonnell (R). He attended the Oct. 17 orientation, delivering remarks that apparently were not preserved on the Web for posterity.

Another speaker was Thomas Farrell, a U-Va. alumnus and former U-Va. rector, or leader of the governing board. Farrell chairs McDonnell’s higher education commission. Farrell is also chief executive of the Dominion power company, and he has been involved in Virginia higher education governance for many years.

Dragas and former U-Va. vice rector Mark Kington, who collaborated on the attempted ouster of Sullivan, both serve on Dominion’s board of directors.

Farrell’s presentation, titled The Future of Higher Education in Virginia, touched on the imperative to “create a sustainable funding model” to replace lost state subsidies at U-Va. and other public institutions, and on the need to deliver “cost savings and affordable new pathways to degree attainment” in the state. Farrell also addressed the need for “technology-enhanced instruction” and an expansion in online education offerings.

I don’t know whether Dragas attended Farrell’s talk. Some of his themes — particularly the need for cost-savings and the urgency of online education — certainly resurfaced in her public statements last month about the need for dramatic change at U-Va.

Seats on boards of visitors are often awarded to people with personal or political connections to a governor or the governor’s party. Ideally, board members are successful businesspeople or organizational leaders who can bring some wisdom to the governance of a large public university.

But they often arrive on the board knowing relatively little about how a university functions. Hence, the annual one-day orientation session, offered as a quick primer on how the institutions and their governing boards are supposed to function. Dragas attended the orientation to participate in a panel on “trusteeship”.

The 2011 orientation featured a PowerPoint presentation by Neal of ACTA, a nonprofit founded in 1995 as a counterbalance to perceived liberal leanings among faculty and college presidents.

ACTA targets what it terms excessive political correctness on campus. It is best known for calling out universities that fail to require students to learn particular subjects, such as math, science and history, through its annual report What Will They Learn? The theory behind the report is that many colleges have become so sensitive to cultural diversity that they are unwilling to impose specific general-education requirements on their students.

Neal and her group urge governing boards and alumni to get actively involved with their presidents and faculty, even if it means exercising their power to remove a president from the job.

Her presentation included a quote from Benno Schmidt, former president of Yale:

“Change in institutional strategy can only come from trustees. … Reviewing an institution’s academic strategy and deciding whether change is called for is a trustee’s most important responsibility.”

Her PowerPoint noted that U-Va. requires students to take science and foreign language, but the university does not specifically require courses in math, composition, history, economics or literature.

She also noted that college seniors are far more familiar with Beavis and Butthead than with James Madison or George Washington, invoking another ACTA theme.

Neal spoke of the budding movement to hold colleges accountable for value. She cited research suggesting that students don’t spend very much time studying, and evidence that students may not actually learn very much over the course of college.

Neal is an interesting character in the U-Va. drama: her organization is one of a very few across the higher education community that voiced any measure of support for Dragas and her allies when they forced the resignation of Sullivan in an action announced June 10. The board eventually reversed that action, unanimously voting to reinstate her on June 26.

In an op-ed published in this newspaper, Neal alluded to a report her organization had released that illustrated the rising costs of a Virginia public college education:

“The old model of increasing budgets and raising tuition — without cutting costs — is unsustainable,” she wrote. “Students and their families are suffering. The in-state tuition for U-Va. already takes up nearly 20 percent of the median household income.

“That’s why U-Va. should be viewed as ground zero in a national struggle for excellent and affordable education. While the university board’s opaque process in removing Sullivan is regrettable, the board is right to be concerned about the direction of the university.”

Neal did not mention Dragas by name. But her perspective is not too far removed from that of the rector, who justified Sullivan’s ouster as a necessary intervention to rescue U-Va. from what she viewed as an increasingly dismal financial model. Dragas suggested that rising costs and dwindling state subsidies call for hard choices and, presumably, significant cuts, and she faulted Sullivan for moving too slowly to address that issue .

Neal advocates for strong governing boards; she opposes listless, powerless, “potted plant” trustees who feel helpless to question the presidents they hire.

I e-mailed Neal. In response, she wrote, “I believe that the objection you encounter to ACTA’s role stems from those who like the status quo to be free of accountability or scrutiny. . . What is ideological about a focus on quality and affordability?  It is threatening to institutions that don’t want to change; but I urgently believe that is what has to happen if we want to maintain a higher education system that is – as higher education leaders are wont to say – the ‘envy of the world’.”

Dragas seems to share Neal’s enthusiasm for empowering university governing boards. In her remarks at U-Va. on the day Sullivan was reinstated, Dragas acknowledged bringing about a “near-death experience” at her alma mater. But she also suggested that her intervention had brought new strength to a panel that “used to be an irrelevant group to most of the U-Va. family”.

Neal’s participation in the fall orientation has caused a minor stir among Virginia faculty. One professor at James Madison University wrote in an e-mail that “the support ACTA apparently enjoys within the McDonnell administration may have been an important precipitant that convinced Ms. Dragas that her actions would enjoy support.”

This professor asked to remain anonymous. “Speaking out against boards, SCHEV, ACTA, and Richmond could have some very real consequences for my career,” he wrote.

I asked Kirsten Nelson, spokeswoman for SCHEV, about Neal’s talk.

Nelson said Neal has spoken only once at a board orientation. In 2010, SCHEV brought in the leader of a different group, the Association of Governing Boards, an organization that is regarded as more ideologically neutral and is certainly far less critical of universities.

“We try to ask different people in different years, with different perspectives,” she said.

The orientation session is an unfunded mandate, and SCHEV could not afford to hold one in 2009. But new board members did get an orientation day in 2008. One attendee was Dragas, who was new to the U-Va. board that year.