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Kaine, as governor, left a mark on higher education in Virginia

Democrat Tim Kaine campaigned at George Mason University in October 2005 as he was running for governor in Virginia. (Kevin Clark/The Washington Post)

Timothy M. Kaine backed a major construction initiative for public colleges during his four years as Virginia governor and oversaw increases for higher education funding until economic recession squeezed state spending midway through his term.

The Democrat, governor from 2006 to 2010, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton announced Friday that Kaine is her choice for vice-presidential running mate, bringing fresh scrutiny to his lengthy record in public office.

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As governor, Kaine left a mark on higher education in Virginia. He consoled Virginia Tech after a gunman killed 32 students, faculty and staff members on campus in 2007 in what was at the time the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history.

Kaine also made numerous appointments to college boards, perhaps none more significant than his choice in 2008 of Virginia Beach home builder Helen E. Dragas to fill a seat on the University of Virginia Board of Visitors.

Dragas later became the first female rector of U-Va., a post that put her at the helm of the board from 2011 to 2013. In that time, Dragas sought and failed to oust U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan, a leadership showdown in 2012 that drew national attention. Kaine’s successor as governor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), also gave Dragas a four-year appointment to the U-Va. board.

Dragas a key player in 2012 leadership drama at U-Va.

During the U-Va. leadership crisis, Kaine sided with Sullivan and said U-Va.’s board had erred in not holding a full meeting to discuss whether to force out the president.

“There’s a board for a reason. Group decision making is better than the thoughts of any one person,” Kaine said at the time. “I think the entire board made a fundamental mistake in not having a meeting before making a decision of this magnitude, and I lay that at the entire board’s feet.”

Higher education in Virginia is somewhat decentralized and generally bipartisan. Governors appoint boards to oversee individual universities. They also name boards for the state community college system and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

“Tim was a friend of higher education,” Paul S. Trible Jr., president of Christopher Newport University, said Monday. “He did all he could to be supportive. He was a good governor who led Virginia during very difficult times.” Trible, who has led the public university in Newport News since 1996, previously served in the U.S. House and Senate as a Republican from Virginia.

In December 2007, Kaine proposed borrowing $1.65 billion to support construction projects at public colleges and universities — an initiative described at the time as the largest proposal of its kind in state history. The legislature in April 2008 approved a bond initiative totaling $1.5 billion, mostly benefiting higher education.

At the outset of his term, Kaine oversaw funding increases for higher education. Data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers shows that Virginia provided public appropriations of $6,856 per full-time college student in 2007, up from $6,145 in 2005 before Kaine took office. (Figures were adjusted for inflation.) But state funding ebbed after the nation plunged into recession in 2007-08. The appropriation per student fell to $6,314 in 2009 — Kaine’s final full year in office — and $5,561 in 2010.

Glenn DuBois, the longtime chancellor of Virginia’s community college system, said Kaine as governor “took particular interest” in the public two-year colleges. “He described us as the on-ramp to higher education,” DuBois said. Kaine’s wife, Anne Holton, worked with the community colleges on education for foster youth, DuBois said. She is now Virginia’s secretary of education.

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The massacre at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, was a defining event in Kaine’s tenure. Appearing with Clinton on Saturday in Miami, Kaine recalled it as “the worst day of my life.” He said he was on a trip to Japan at the time on state business, but immediately flew back home to be with the university in solidarity as it mourned.

“I had to bring comfort in some way to the families of those who had been killed,” Kaine said. He cited the tragedy as a reason why he has pushed forcefully for “common-sense gun safety” measures, including universal background checks.

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