It's over: Dragas will most likely be confirmed

Money and politics trump the good of the University in decision to confirm Dragas' reappointment

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Helen Dragas’ reappointment to the University Board of Visitors will most likely be confirmed when the General Assembly reconvenes Jan. 9. The decision will not be about the good of University or whether Dragas is fit to serve at the helm of the Board.

It’s safe to say a vast majority of the University community does not support Dragas’ reappointment. Calls for her removal from the Board have been deafening since emails putting her at the center of the Sullivan ouster were released during the summer. More than 2,100 people have signed a petition urging the General Assembly to block her confirmation. Seventy-nine percent of Charlottesville-area residents want changes to the Board appointment process, according to a survey by the University Center for Survey Research. Even prominent state legislators like Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax County) and Del. Stephen Landes (R-Augusta County) have spoken out against Dragas.

But a small cadre of big influencers has Dragas’ back. First, there are the politicians. Republican Governor Bob McDonnell reappointed her in the first place. Mark Warner (D-VA) – U.S. senator and co-founder of Columbia Capital with former Vice Rector Mark Kington – has been canvassing legislators in support of Dragas. And Virginia’s other U.S. senator, Tim Kaine (D-VA), first appointed her to the Board in 2008 and to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia in 2006 during his term as governor.

Then there are the donors. The list of University Board members reads like a who’s who of top political contributors in Virginia. The Board effectively controls a sizeable portion of the money going to the campaigns of state politicians. And it’s not just the money of Board members themselves. Their families, companies and business connections donate millions to influence state politicians.

No savvy legislator will go against the will of a top political donor, especially one with such far-reaching influence as Dragas. The rector and her construction company contribute a lot of money to Virginia politicians – more than $125,000, according to the Federal Election Commission and Virginia Public Access Project. Dragas also serves on the board of directors at one of the state’s most powerful companies: Dominion Power. Former Vice Rector Mark Kington also sits on the Dominion board and former University Rector Thomas Farrell serves as chairman. Dominion has contributed $6,766,145 to state and local politicians from 2000-2013. That number makes the company one of the state’s biggest donors. The company has given Sen. Warner a total of more than $276,000. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax County), Democratic leader of the State Senate, has received more than $195,000. Dominion has given Gov. McDonnell a total of more than $358,000. Warner and McDonnell have pledged their support for Dragas. Saslaw, as the most powerful Democratic member of the State Senate, will likely make a big impact on the decision to reappoint Dragas.

Finally there’s politics as usual. Given the Board can’t be held directly accountable to its constituents, the elected state legislature should have the public’s interest in mind. Dragas’ opposition – comprised of a myriad of faculty, staff, students, alumni and donors – put faith in their ability to vocalize their discontent to legislators. But their shouts fall on deaf ears. Republicans, even if they disapprove of Dragas, are hesitant to vote against her lest it be seen as a victory for the University’s left-leaning faculty and student body. Democrats take the academic community for granted – no matter what Democratic politicians do, overwhelmingly liberal students and faculty will continue to vote for them. And some legislators don’t even care about this issue at all – take Sen. Charles Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson County), who told The Daily Progress he sees no reason to question Dragas’ confirmation because the University isn’t in his district. “If the governor is satisfied with her and wants to reappoint her, I have no problem with it,” he said.

Why does Dragas want to be reappointed so badly? Given all of the pressure put on her by an angry University community, wouldn’t it be easier for her to just bow out quietly? Not if she wants to rehab her image. And not if she wants to have a say in who Sullivan’s successor is. The rector has tried to clean up her image in the public eye by making nice with Sullivan and endorsing reforms to Board processes. She has said in many public statements that she wants to move the University forward and not rehash the past. To demonstrate her apparent newfound commitment to the president, Dragas smilingly announced a one-year contract extension for Sullivan.

When reappointed to the Board, Dragas will serve another four-year term, until July 2016. Her term as rector will expire at the end of June 2013, when current Vice Rector George Martin takes the position. That leaves plenty of time for Dragas to exert influence on the Board. By the time she leaves, Dragas will be the senior-most member of the Board. Even with a one-year extension, Sullivan’s contract is up in three and a half years. Special committees to select new presidents typically form a year prior to the end of the current president’s term. Unless a decision is made beforehand to extend Sullivan’s contract some more, Dragas will still be on the Board when the committee to pick Sullivan’s successor is created.

Dragas’ supporters will move as quickly as possible to confirm her and there’s little chance of convincing legislators to vote otherwise. This isn’t about what’s good for the University. It’s about the money and the politics. Don’t get us wrong – we think Dragas should go too, and we hope state legislators will vote against her confirmation. But there’s no sense being naïve about it. Here’s to another four years, Rector Dragas.

Correction: This article incorrectly stated the Dominion Leadership Trust is affiliated with Dominion Power. It is in fact a political action committee of Virginia House Speaker William Howell.


Published January 8, 2013 in FP test, Opinion

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