Today’s University of Virginia Board of Visitors meeting, a routine orientation for new members, represents something bigger in the wake of last year’s leadership crisis: a new beginning.
The board will welcome three new members this afternoon — hedge fund manager John Griffin, of New York; investment company president Frank Genovese, of Midlothian; and Kevin Fay, a lobbyist based in McLean. All three are university alumni.
Board members also will discuss the university’s strategic plans at a weekend retreat, the first public board meeting under the leadership of Rector George Keith Martin, who took over the top post in July. He is taking the place of Helen Dragas, who spearheaded last year’s removal of President Teresa A. Sullivan and took the brunt of the criticism in the ensuing controversy.
Some of the most vocal critics were faculty members, who are hoping the new leadership will be more receptive to input.
Chris Holstege, a medical school professor who chairs the university’s Faculty Senate, said Martin has been “very approachable” so far.
“I think he’s going to be a terrific rector,” Holstege said.
Holstege said the trouble last year can be chalked up, in part, to a lack of communication. The controversy forced the channels of communication between the board and faculty to open up more, he said.
“In some ways, you can say the events of last summer got us to talk, and I think that’s good,” Holstege said. “And I think we should continue to build upon that.”
A lack of transparency was among the main criticisms issued by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an accrediting body that last year placed UVa on warning because of the secretive way the board made decisions last summer.
Belle S. Wheelan, who heads the SACS Commission on Colleges, said many of the decisions — at least at the time of the controversy — seemed to be in the hands of a small group of board members.
“From our standpoint, the communication seemed to be among a handful of visitors rather than the entire board,” she said. “I think there’ll be recognition for the need to bring concerns before the full board.”
The accrediting agency plans to send representatives to the university this fall to make sure leadership is following through on promises to bring concerns before the full board.
Still, Wheelan said, the first meetings are an important gauge for the future of university leadership.
“I think this first board meeting will set the groundwork for how things are done from now,” she said.
But the significance of the meetings is more than symbolic.
Board members will meet at the Darden School of Business on Saturday to discuss the strategic plan and the growing cost of financial aid under Access UVa. Those were key issues still unresolved at the end of the last academic year.
University staff is expected this month to deliver a draft of a long-term strategic plan. Administrators still are mulling over a consulting group’s recommendations to focus efforts on the university’s traditional strengths — undergraduate education and the humanities — and consider raising tuition.
The agenda for the retreat includes two strategic planning sessions, on Friday and Saturday. Martin said he’s looking forward to working on the university’s strategic plan with Sullivan.
“The board will get to work right away on important issues at our retreat,” Martin said Wednesday. “President Sullivan and her team have worked closely with the Special Committee on Strategic Planning and have made progress in continuing to develop an important, new strategic plan to guide UVa.”
Board members also plan to discuss Access UVa, a financial aid program created in 2004 for students whose families make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Need has risen sharply, and so have expenses — the program cost more than $90 million last year.
Access UVa will be the subject of an hourlong session Friday.
Other board members remain tight-lipped about the upcoming meetings. Holstege, the Faculty Senate chair, also was reluctant to talk about financial aid and the strategic plan.
“Those are challenging dialogues, but … I think it’s early right now,” he said.