U.Va.’s BOV: The need to listen, leak, & vacillate

Dear Governor McDonnell,

I read your letter of today to the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors with some alarm. You suggest that the Board give little weight to opinions other than its own, and you remonstrate Board members for their leaks and vacillation. However, the Board has so far given no weight to the University’s constituencies – that’s been part of the problem – and the Board members’ leaks and vacillations have been two of the only things that may permit the Board to reverse itself and to save the University from a very dark future.

I’ll start with the Board’s treatment of others’ opinions. The board has already ignored the feelings and thoughts of every constituency imaginable – students, faculty, administrators, alumni (of whom I am one), and Virginia citizens (of whom I also am one) – in dismissing President Sullivan, and in doing so in such a high-handed manner. Should they continue to pay only lip service to any point of view but their own as you imply in the paragraph straddling the third page of your letter?

You also wrongly decry the board members’ leaks and vacillation in this paragraph:

Fourth, act as a unified board once your deliberations are done. While no one expects unanimous votes on this or other major issues, the Board must speak with one, united voice once decisions are made. These past weeks of leaks to the media regarding closed sessions, and vacillating positions are unacceptable.

The leaks are all the University community and the larger public has had to go on because the Board, as you point out earlier in your letter, has been so secretive and opaque. Former University President John Casteen’s call for Board meetings to be open to the public, if heeded, would be a breath of fresh air. If it weren’t for the Board’s leaks to the Washington Post, we’d never have learned that the twelve-to-one vote ended protracted deliberations during which, at one point, eight board members supported Sullivan’s reinstatement. That revelation gave fresh hope that the board might see fit to admit that it erred in dismissing her, and it gave fresh impetus to those pushing for Sullivan’s reinstatement.  If the speaking-with-one-voice stance Rector Dragas tried after the Board’s original coup had held up, I think the University’s future would be bleak indeed, beginning with significant faculty defections over the next five years. That still could happen starting Tuesday if the Board doesn’t sufficiently vacillate.

If the Board heeds your demand not to vacillate, we are in trouble. The comma in that last sentence I quote above from your letter bothers me from more than a syntactical standpoint. Are you decrying media leaks of vacillating positions, or are you decrying the vacillating positions themselves? The comma suggests the latter, or it suggests at least some combination of both. That’s scary. Can’t a board member admit that he made a mistake? Can’t she admit that she is rethinking her vote or her position? If you say that you don’t want vacillation, then you are signaling that you don’t want Sullivan reinstated, despite your professed neutrality on that issue. Since you require the Board to give a detailed explanation of its decision this coming Tuesday, the Board would have to explain its vacillation were it to vote in favor of reinstating Ms. Sullivan. Since you’ve intimated that you don’t want them to vacillate, you’ve made it more difficult for the Board to reverse itself.

After this horrible episode is over, the legislature should pass a law, perhaps calling it the Dragas Act, requiring that future board members represent different constituencies and backgrounds and requiring the board to have clear procedures regarding votes leading to particular outcomes, such as the appointment or removal of presidents.

Thank you for your consideration.

[I emailed an earlier draft of this to the governor earlier this evening. Gov. McDonnell’s letter tries to sound above the fray, but a close read — the kind of read a board threatened with forced resignations would likely take — makes him sound more like Lady Macbeth: “. . . screw your courage to the sticking-place, / And we’ll not fail.” If you want to keep up with the details of this incredible mess, which I think may damage the University more as the controversy becomes more partisan and nationalized, I know of no better source than Cvillenews.com.]


  1. I’m afraid you’re way over McDonnell’s head. You’ll most likely receive a form letter, if that.

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