In the spring of 1986, the new governor of Virginia went to Winchester for the city’s annual Apple Blossom Festival. Gerald Baliles wasn’t the most famous celebrity there that day. That honor belonged to Len Bias, a star basketball player from the University of Maryland who many considered on a par with Michael Jordan. Surely he was destined for a glamorous career in the NBA.
Just a few weeks later, though, Bias was dead from a cocaine overdose and the subsequent investigation turned into a scandal that brought down Maryland’s coach, the athletic director and generally rocked the university. The problems at a neighboring state’s flagship university gnawed at Baliles. “They had an impact on me,” he later told The Roanoke Times, “because I wondered what the impact was on the kids. ... It struck me then that it was very fortunate for the University of Maryland that its reputation as an academic institution and the work that was being done by professors in the classroom and others — all of that was being overshadowed by all of the focus on the sports program.”
Baliles soon had an unfortunate example in his own state — a series of scandals that sprang out of the athletic department at Virginia Tech. The details don’t particularly matter now, but Baliles’ response does. Baliles did something unheard of for a governor. He ordered his Secretary of Education to prepare a report on what the heck was happening at Tech. When has a governor ever concerned himself with an athletic scandal? Baliles did, because he saw that it wasn’t just an athletic scandal. The report was delivered on June 12, 1987. The next day Baliles delivered the commencement address at Tech. It might just be the most famous commencement address any Virginia governor has ever delivered.
No one saw what was coming. Governors deliver commencement speeches all the time — happy words, quickly forgotten. People in Virginia still remember what Baliles said at Virginia Tech that day. It was a message that Baliles —often described as bookish and cerebral, yet one of the most action-oriented governors we’ve ever seen — had been mulling over for nearly a year, ever since Len Bias’ death. It was time, he felt, to deliver a message to all Virginia universities. Most gubernatorial speeches are churned out by speechwriters; this was one he worked on himself with help from aide G.C. Morse. Baliles considered it one of the most important speeches he’d give as governor. As Baliles’ Blacksburg appearance drew closer, and the Tech scandal continued to unravel, some legislators suggested he use the occasion to speak privately to the Board of Visitors. That was not what Baliles had in mind.
The speech began ordinarily enough — the usual encouraging but forgettable words. And then it turned. Press accounts at the time described the graduates as “rambunctious,” and then quickly falling silent as they realized what Baliles was doing. He was talking about the athletic scandal — and delivering a stern public rebuke to the university’s governing board: “We have glimpsed an ominous future, a future few of us ever thought possible. It is a future of misspent financial resources, of million-dollar coaching contracts and lavish expense accounts. It is a future that invites unethical conduct and humiliating publicity. It is a future this institution never dreamt of. It is a future that Virginia Tech does not need.”
The Washington Post wrote that Baliles suddenly “galvanized many of the most exuberant graduates into rapt attention.” And then they started to cheer. In all, students interrupted his remarks five times with applause.
Baliles blasted the Board of Visitors for losing sight of the school’s mission and instead adopting “a new set of ambitions . . . that, if allowed to grow unchecked, could easily compromise Virginia Tech’s excellence and injure its dreams. These are ambitions not measured by breakthroughs in research, but by breaking records in gate receipts. These are ambitions not measured by the achievements of scholars, but by glory on the playing field. They are not the ambitions of Virginians who care about education and care about Virginia Tech.”
That wasn’t all. Those were words. This was the action: Baliles declared that “I will decline future reappointment of board members unless they can clearly demonstrate a redirection of this university to its essential purpose. I will also accept the immediate resignation of any board member not wishing to make this commitment for the remainder of his or her term.” This was a public admonishment of the highest order. “I expect problems to be solved, not prolonged,” Baliles demanded. “I expect action, not paralysis. I expect extracurricular activities to have a place — and to be kept in their place.” Tech administrators were not pleased. Some legislators were not pleased. They felt Baliles had “ruined” graduation, that this was the wrong venue for the governor to deliver his message. He felt it was exactly the right message. As Morse recalled years later, “it was a speech delivered out of affection for the institution, but I don’t believe it was received that way.”
Baliles kept his word, too. About a month later, he pointedly declined to reappoint two members whose renewal would otherwise have been routine. He then met with the newly-constituted board to deliver a mandate that the board be “hands on.” Too often, board members see their appointment as an honorific; Baliles insisted they be a real board of directors.
In time, the scandals passed, although not before Tech President William Lavery resigned. Baliles’ stern words that day ring down through the years. He didn’t necessarily slow the growth of college athletics, but he did lay down a marker about what universities are really supposed to be about. “You’ve got to remember that for me education was my window on the world in Patrick County,” Baliles told The Roanoke Times shortly after the speech. “It was my ticket, and it’s been that way for generations of people who came to this country from distant places. It’s been their way to success.”
Even in his later years, as he battled the kidney cancer that eventually took him, Baliles found time to keep talking about the importance of education — particularly in rural Virginia. Baliles, who passed away Tuesday at age 79, is commonly remembered as Virginia’s “transportation governor.” But he was also the governor who insisted that universities are there to educate, not entertain.