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UVa alumni want to reduce political influences on board of visitors appointments.
Thursday, September 26, 2013
Given the lackluster state support for colleges and universities in recent years, it’s no wonder there is public sympathy for a variety of reforms to Virginia’s system of higher education. Given the upheaval in Charlottesville last summer, it’s no wonder that the reform drum beats loudest among University of Virginia alumni.
High-profile alums there are pressing gubernatorial candidates to make changes in the selection process for members of the university’s board of visitors. The group wants eight of the 17 seats to be filled from a pool of candidates vetted by alumni, donors and possibly other groups such as faculty and staff. Currently, at least 12 members must be university graduates, and the UVa Alumni Association makes recommendations, but the govenor is not obligated to abide by them.
Those seeking the changes are concerned that seats are doled out by governors as favors to campaign donors.
The Washington Post reported this week that a leader in the effort, Jeffrey C. Walker, has donated $50,000 to Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe’s campaign.
Walker is a smart fellow — a graduate of the University, don’t forget — and he’s playing the game by the rules now in effect. But his donations and his encouragement of other alumni to pair their plugs for reform with similar contributions raise the question whether the change in appointment methodology would make any discernible difference in the make-up of the board. It’s not clear the proposal would result in more middle-class representation, which would be beneficial.
As The Post notes, not all alumni who agree with Walker are political givers, and there is a value in having more people serve on college boards who have no allegiance to either party but rather an allegiance to their university. And, just as important, the commonwealth’s system of public higher education. The question that must be addressed is whether the alumni’s proposed solution would result in fewer board members with that big picture view and, to be fair, whether many now have such a perspective.
The proposal follows turmoil over the removal of President Teresa Sullivan, who was reinstated after protests. Instigator Helen Dragas’ loyalty to the university is not in question. Indeed, her loyalty blinded her to the need for transparency. Would the alumni proposal make such incidents less likely, or more so? The answer is unknowable, but any change must ensure the presence on governing boards of individuals with a familiarity and respect for public accountability.
The debate over governance is woven into a larger discussion of whether UVa should move toward a model similar to private universities. Many state leaders are uncomfortable with the idea because they would have less control, and in-state tuition would undoubtedly rise. But a public university requires public support. If they fail to make good on their end of the bargin, the winds of discontent won’t remain confined to Charlottesville.
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