Fixing the board

The state government and University Board of Visitors should adopt reforms proposed by the Faculty Senate

After a one-week delay because of Hurricane Sandy, the Faculty Senate met Monday night with John Simon, the University provost. Here the Task Force on Board of Visitors Composition made its presentation — a 15-page brief comparing the University’s Board to that of peer institutions. Although the Board of Visitors has already established an internal Special Committee on Governance — which has recommended reform measures — the senate’s Task Force on Board of Visitors Composition brings an outside, academic perspective to the University political structure. The steps this task force suggested were approved by the senate this week and would better not only the University’s Board but those of all in Virginia.

The task force delivered a tract that featured comparative analysis on university board structure and literature from the Code of Virginia. All of this information contributed to the paper’s five main recommendations that were approved by the faculty Monday. These recommendations not only aim to change the University’s Board composition but also to alter the process for adding members to boards of all state universities.

The first of the recommendations is to amend Virginia Code to incorporate language that would make a board selection process “mission-driven” rather than politically driven. By articulating specific guidelines in accordance with a well-defined mission, the selection process for board members would follow an explicit set of criteria to pick only those members aligned to a university’s goals.

The next recommendation is to improve the Commission on Higher Education Board Appointments (VCHEBA), the panel that helps Gov. Bob McDonnell make selections for university boards. VCHEBA is only advisory, providing suggestions for additions to boards but allowing full discretion to the governor for making final appointments. Yet considering VCHEBA itself is appointed by the governor, it seems one person wields undue influence over making so many selections central to public education.

The existing corrective measure to make board appointments a more democratic process is that the General Assembly must approve of all appointments to boards. As the Faculty Senate notes, however, there exists a time-delay: The governor makes appointments in July to be approved by legislators in January. This temporal gap makes it more difficult for the General Assembly to oversee the appointments and less likely that they will deny many selections. The senate wisely wishes to improve this by recommending legislation be passed to calibrate the appointment process for when the General Assembly is in session.

Lastly, the Faculty Senate has two recommendations specific to the University’s Board. One of them is increasing the size of the Board; the other is adding a non-voting faculty member to sit as a Board representative — a common practice of public universities in Virginia, and one we have previously endorsed.

These recommendations are promising but might be difficult to incorporate within the near future. Changing legislation at the state level is hard for any goal, let alone something as seemingly far removed from the public as the structure of university boards. Yet the senate is right to capitalize on the bipartisan momentum created this summer to ensure the political integrity of Virginia public universities. By adding more members with academic backgrounds and checking the role of the governor in making selections, boards at the University and elsewhere will more closely resemble the constituents of public schools.

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