THE OBVIOUS moral of the University of Virginia’s 2012 fiasco, in which its governing board attempted but failed to unilaterally oust the president, is that universities must never operate without transparency and openness. But for some members of the Board of Visitors, student rallies and faculty condemnations were not enough of a lesson. It took a new eruption of public anger and a backlash from legislators last week to force the dialing back of a board “statement of expectations” that would limit members’ ability to publicly dissent.
The original draft of the document, which was created to conform with legislation requiring a board code of ethics, had mandated that board members “publicly support, or at the very least not openly oppose, the Board’s action.” In addition, it ordered board members to refer all public questions to the rector. A new draft, released on Wednesday, mostly removed these two controversial requirements. Yet it still perplexingly insisted that board members’ request for institutional data “should be rare,” contradicting the close engagement that any board should have with day-to-day officials. Actions such as approving the annual budget and establishing the “general education policy” require asking probing questions.
To help create the draft, the university brought in Richard P. Chait, a leading nonprofit governance expert. Mr. Chait, according to the minutes of a June 5 meeting, said that the board is “not a team, not collegial, and not unified” and that administrators “view the board as divided and fractured.” Presumably to solve these problems, the statement had included provisions that tried to limit discussion only to the boardroom and present a veneer of unity.
Effective governance, especially balancing discipline with free debate, is tricky. As Mr. Chait said in the same meeting, public challenges by board members of decisions made in private corporations are almost never tolerated. But the University of Virginia is not a private business, and, when in question, the board should err on the side of free speech. A major goal of education is to encourage public expression and the free flow of information, and the university’s leadership should emulate that ideal. Practically speaking, muzzling board members’ ability to express themselves is among the quickest ways to exacerbate the divisions that the board is trying to avoid.
While the new draft is still flawed, board members have at least retreated from the original version. Going forward, the Board of Visitors would do well to remember that the 2012 rebellion by students and teachers was a result of the board’s secretive decision-making. Open, not closed, governance will avoid a repeat of the past.