Embattled University of Virginia Rector Helen E. Dragas could face an uphill battle to retain her post when the General Assembly convenes next month in the wake of continuing fallout over the summer leadership crisis.
“I’m sure she’s a fine person, but the public has to have confidence in its public institutions, and we have to get past this, and I’m not sure how we get past this with the same crew in place,” state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, said Tuesday.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges placed the university on warning Tuesday in response to the failed effort Dragas led in June to oust school President Teresa A. Sullivan. The accrediting agency will send a team to the university to get a full explanation of what happened over the summer and to investigate the panel’s concerns that a minority of board members is effectively running the state’s flagship university.
Responding to a vast public outcry, the university’s Board of Visitors, led by Dragas, reinstated Sullivan on June 26, 16 days after accepting her forced resignation. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell reappointed Dragas on June 29. She was originally appointed to the board by Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine in 2008.
“The issues raised [by the accrediting panel] concerned board administrative procedures, not academic quality or faculty competence,” McDonnell said in an emailed statement. “I have great confidence in the ability of the newly constituted University of Virginia Board of Visitors and President Teresa Sullivan to address all accreditation and governance issues facing the University.”
Deeds is one of seven Democrats on the Senate Privilege and Elections Committee, which sends the governor’s appointments to the state Senate. Both houses vote on the appointments. Republicans control both chambers, with a majority in the House and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling potentially holding the deciding vote in a split Senate.
Appointments frequently go unchallenged. But the issue of whether to retain Dragas likely will stir intense debate in committee and both houses, Deeds said.
“It’s just a continuing embarrassment,” said Deeds, McDonnell’s Democratic foe in the 2009 gubernatorial race. “People say, ‘Let’s get past it,’ and I think we all need to get past it, and this warning is just evidence that we can’t get past it until we make some structural changes.”
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, the chairman of the Privilege and Elections Committee, could not be reached for comment.
The committee views all of the governor’s annual appointments, and can approve them with one vote, or focus debate on individuals, said Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville. The committee could decide to remove Dragas from the list of appointments before sending it to the House and Senate.
“It’s hard for me to envision a scenario in which I vote for her reconfirmation,” Toscano said.
The message from his constituents is clear, he said.
“It’s not even a close call,” Toscano said. “I get stopped on the street all the time and advised that I should vote against reappointment … I’d say it’s about nine to one.”
UVa alumnus Richard Marks has organized a group that has been calling for Dragas to resign since June.
“The SACS decision is another colossal embarrassment for UVa,” Marks said. “The first step for the General Assembly in our view is to decline confirming Helen Dragas for another term on UVa’s Board of Visitors. The reason is straightforward. Ms. Dragas’s decisions and actions in managing the board are at the center of this wholly unnecessary crisis.”
On hoosuniversity.org, Marks’ group encourages alumni to contact delegates and senators and provides a form letter opposing the rector’s reinstatement.
An online petition posted on change.org calling for the General Assembly to reject Dragas had gathered more than 300 signatures by press time.
Dragas did not immediately return a request for comment.