Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) can’t say he wasn’t warned.
Last summer Helen Dragas, the rector of the University of Virginia’s governing Board of Visitors, sparked an 18-day leadership crisis at the elite school when she pushed out the popular U-Va. president, Teresa Sullivan, and then was forced to reinstate her after a campus rebellion. Why did she do it? She still hasn’t really explained though there was some suggestion that Sullivan not the transformative leader that Dragas, who runs a real estate concern, wanted.
Still, McDonnell saw fit to reappoint her to the board, and the board members themselves decided she was the right person to keep leading the board. The university’s accrediting agency, however, was unamused and late last year put the school “on warning” as, well, a warning about unnecessary crises that can shake the faith in the institution.
But then, a few days ago, we learned from this story by my colleague Jenna Johnson that Dragas wasn’t playing well again with Sullivan. Johnson reported that Dragas had given Sullivan a list of “goals” for the year that, it turned out, included measures that were impossible to complete. According to an e-mail that Johnson obtained, Sullivan said that she got the list just a week before the goals were to become permanent. Of the 65 goals on the list, 22 had never been mentioned before, four required actions by a meeting at the end of the month and one unspecified goal “requires me to do something that the General Counsel tells me I am not legally authorized to do.” And, missing from the list, Sullivan wrote, was her own “most urgent goal” to raise employee compensation.
Did Dragas came up with the list without any governing board input, with a little, a lot or with unanimous support? The Faculty Senate Executive Committee issued a statement questioning Dragas’s motives after Johnson’s story came out, and Dragas then issued her own response saying that she had asked the “entire board” to participate “at more than one step in the process” of goal setting.
In her response, Dragas essentially insulted the executive committee, accusing it of failing to be analytical about the situation. She wrote: ““I trust that our faculty, as a whole, are able to inspire our students to a high level of critical analysis, especially in emotionally charged situations.”
Hmm. Does that mean the entire board was involved in all of the goal setting?
Given that Dragas said last summer that the entire board approved of her efforts to push out Sullivan and some members said later they didn’t, it is fair to wonder what is going on now. If the full board is behind her, that’s a problem. If the full board is not behind her, that’s a problem. Unfortunately, no board members are speaking up to clarify. They are allowing suspicion to continue.
So we’ve got tension between the governing board and the president, with the faculty’s top representatives upset about at the governing board chair. That sounds all too familiar. Dragas clearly has an agenda, though she hasn’t felt the need to share it with the university community — and thus far, nobody has forced her to. Not other governing board members. Not the governor.
If/when that tension boils over, McDonnell can’t say he wasn’t warned from the first time around.