Bipartisan legislators host town hall to consider Dragas ouster
Deeds, Toscano, Virginia residents consider legislative action to block rector's reappointment
A group of Virginia residents and bipartisan legislators, dissatisfied with the attempted ouster of University President Teresa Sullivan this summer, are addressing what they feel is a lack of transparency among the Board of Visitors. The group is considering taking legislative action against Gov. Bob McDonnell’s decision to appoint Rector Helen Dragas to a second four-year term on the Board.
Virginia Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, Thursday evening hosted a joint town hall meeting at the Law School to discuss issues in higher education, specifically focusing on this summer’s events.Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, and Del. Jimmie Massie, R-Henrico, joined Deeds and Toscano to complete the panel.
“We really can’t move forward until we fully understand the dynamics of what occurred this summer,” Toscano said at the start of the meeting. “We need to set forth the people and policies to ensure that this does not happen again.”
McDonnell decided in June to reappoint Dragas to another four-year term on the Board, including one year as rector, citing a need for reconciliation between the Board, the University faculty and Sullivan.
Virginia General Assembly members are set to vote to approve or reject the governor’s Board appointments in January.
The vote on Dragas’s confirmation could be heavily swayed by the University’s accreditation report, which is to be released later this year. If the report were critical of the Rector, she would face a very tough time receiving the votes required for confirmation, Toscano said.
“That could have a tremendous impact on what we do in January [during the session], particularly in terms of the appointment process and whether or not we confirm Ms. Dragas, which is a huge issue here in the audience tonight and throughout the state,” Toscano said.
Legislators acknowledged legislation might be necessary to improve the appointment process.
“One of the things I’ve been trying to do is to look into legislation about transparency and having our Board members also have some mandatory training,” Landes said. “You can’t have the expectation of someone knowing what the law is unless they’ve had the training to learn what the law is.”
If legislation is necessary it needs to be bipartisan, policymakers at the town hall agreed. “It really is not a partisan issue,” Landes said. “There should be [an] effort to move anything that may occur during the General Assembly session through in a manner that is bipartisan.”
The event attracted a crowd of community members, alumni, students and faculty, many of whom stepped forward to voice their concerns about the Board’s appointment process.
“There was a flaw this summer and there continues to be a flaw,” community member Joan Fenton said. “And unless the appointment process changes, we’re going to continue to have people like [Dragas] being in charge of the University of Virginia.”
Even though policymakers at Thursday’s town hall agreed change needed to happen, Toscano said it should be done cautiously to avoid interfering with the Board’s day-to-day operations. The governor has a similar concern, McDonnell spokesperson Jeff Caldwell said.
“The governor does not believe the board appointment selection process should be changed,” Caldwell said in an email. “As far as internal board governance rules and procedures, he generally believes those should be left to each board to determine.”
The University does not plan to take a position on proposed or potential proposed legislation, University spokesperson Marian Anderfuren said.