The line of communication between the administration and the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia is not always clear — as demonstrated by last year’s attempted firing of President Teresa A. Sullivan — but the board is working to change that.
The Special Committee on Governance and Engagement was formed this year to come up with a “best practices” list to help the board -- made up of gubernatorial appointees -- and the administration -- led by the university president -- to collaborate better.
Co-chairman Timothy B. Robertson said the committee also wants to draw a more clear distinction between the powers of the board and the powers of the administration.
“Obviously, there are places where you have to work together,” Robertson said at the committee’s first meeting last month.
“But there are places where things really are the purview of the administration, not the board, and things are the purview of the board, not the administration.”
By the end of the year, Robertson said he hopes to have training material for new board members, helping them navigate the sometimes-complicated relationship between the two entities.
On paper, the relationship is simple.
The Board of Visitors has 25 “powers and duties” outlined in its manual, ranging from the approval of a budget, hiring and firing of the president, changing tuition and fees and the establishment of new departments and schools. The administration implements board policy and manages day-to-day affairs.
In practice, the administration draws up most of the plans, which are then tweaked and adjusted by the board. Rich Novak, a fellow at the Association of Governing Boards, said this can sometimes lead to boards being too reactive.
“I’ve seen too many boards where it depends totally on the president … they react to an agenda, rather than creating one,” Novak said. “There should be a conversation ideally between president, rector and the board secretary.”
The board members who voted against changes to the university’s financial aid program, AccessUVa, said the board was too reactive on that decision.
Because the cost of the program had quadrupled since its implementation, administrators in August asked the board to enact changes that replaced a portion of the grants for low-income students with loans. The board approved it by a 15-2 vote.
Helen E. Dragas, who cast one of the dissenting votes, later said she thought the full board should have waited to get more data on the impact the proposal would have on students.
“We did take that as a one-off decision instead of waiting to get our recommendation together,” Dragas said at last month’s meeting. “I think the information needed a little more drilling down than we got.”
Kevin J. Fay, who cast the other dissenting vote, said he thought the proposal should have been part of a larger discussion that included finding a “sustainable funder” for AccessUVa in the long-term.
Novak said “activist” members can also clog up the process by overstepping their bounds or going on a personal crusade.
He recalled one board member at a major university who brought up the same anti-affirmative action resolution at every meeting — even after it had been repeatedly rejected. In another system, Novak said, a trustee flooded the administration with public records requests. A trustee at one public college raised a fuss with the press when she learned about a course titled “Sex in the 20th Century,” which she felt was inappropriate.
Novak stopped short of saying the attempted coup of Sullivan in 2012 — driven by Dragas, who was rector at the time — was the work of activist board members. He said the decision-making process should have been more open, though.
“I think it was a process issue driven by the rector,” Novak said. “Whether that was activist or not, I don’t know.”
After the Sullivan incident, the board also began looking for more faculty input. Faculty members were among those most vocally opposed to Sullivan’s removal and they criticized the board for failing to include them in the initial decision.
In response, the board began appointing a non-voting “faculty consulting member” to each standing committee. But the Special Committee on Governance and Engagement is not a standing committee, so it does not include a faculty member.
Walter Heinecke, president of the UVa chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said he’d like to see a faculty member on the committee. The board should be looking at ways to reach out more to the faculty, Heinecke said, as well as the administration.
“I think we still have a ways to go in terms of working on those issues,” Heinecke said. “I think the time could’ve been used to bring some faculty in, and the AAUP could have participated.”
Heinecke said he’d like to see a permanent liaison committee made up of board and faculty members. He said he also wants faculty to have a role in picking who represents them on the board — right now, the rector selects the faculty consulting member.
Heinecke said he has been reaching out to the committee since it was formed, hoping to get involved in some way. So far, he said, he hasn’t heard back.
George M. Cohen, a law professor and Faculty Senate member who also serves as the consulting member on the board’s Educational Policy Committee, said he hasn’t heard anything, either.
But Cohen said he’s not worried. The committee, he said, will reach out to the faculty once it has come up with a draft proposal.
“If they did have something to talk about, I think they’d bring it to us,” Cohen said. “We’ll see what happens when we have something concrete to talk about.”