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A correlation between Board of Visitors appointments and political donations is distressing
Board of Visitors members should be selected on the basis of merit, not money. So the information that a recent review of Virginia Public Access Project records brought to light is disquieting.
All but two of the Board’s 17 members donated to the governor who appointed them, according to the VPAP, a nonprofit group that maintains a database of Virginia campaign contributions. Linwood Rose and Edward Miller are the sole exceptions.
Fourteen Board members contributed to current Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Former rector Helen Dragas donated to former Gov. Tim Kaine, who appointed her in 2008.
When asked about a possible connection between political contributions and governing board appointments, McDonnell spokesperson Paul Shanks insisted that the vetting process for potential Board members consists solely of reviewing professional and personal qualifications and determining their commitment to lead.
“Nothing else is considered or of interest,” Shanks said.
Correlation does not mean causation. But in light of the high proportion of Board members who gave to the governors who appointed them, the claim that political contributions have absolutely nothing to do with Board appointments is tough to swallow. Many Board members are active citizens, as they should be. And citizenship sometimes expresses itself in the form of political donations — though most citizens would be unable to match the record of, say, Board member William H. Goodwin, Jr., who just this year has given $98,250, almost exclusively to Republicans or conservative causes. But are we supposed to believe that the correlation between political giving and Board membership is pure chance?
We should quickly review the Board selection process, which has drawn scrutiny since the Board’s failed ouster of University President Teresa Sullivan last summer. Most people know that the Virginia governor appoints Board members to four-year terms. The Senate and the House of Delegates confirm these appointments. At least 12 Board members must be from Virginia; at least 12 must have attended the University; and at least one must be a physician with experience in an academic medical center.
What some people don’t realize is that for each Board vacancy, the University’s Alumni Association proposes three names to the governor. The governor can choose whether to nominate someone from that list or not. A McDonnell official told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the practice at most Virginia schools is for the university’s president to send the governor a list of names. About half of the appointees to governing boards across the state have been recommended by school presidents. We plan to look into what proportion of the University’s Board members were endorsed by the Alumni Association.
Calls to reform the Board’s selection process have come from within the University and without. A report drafted last semester by the strategic-planning working group devoted to exploring the concept of a “public university” suggested a set of selection criteria for Board members that included knowledge of and experience in higher education. The report also suggested the creation of an independent expert panel to vet Board nominees. A local advocacy group called “Reform the UVA BOV” also wants to see changes in how members are appointed.
The revelation that people who get Board spots seem likely to be big political donors is significant ammunition for groups hoping to reform Board appointments. It is possible that a significant overhaul of the Board selection process — such as what the strategic-planning group described — could be beneficial. But the Alumni Association’s often-overlooked involvement with the Board appointment process points us toward a possible middle way. Perhaps the Alumni Association could propose, for each vacancy, five or so names for the Virginia governor to select from. But the governor would be required to select from the list of candidates that the Alumni Association endorses. Such a system could incorporate Politics Prof. Larry Sabato’s suggestion to have alumni elect some Board members through a competitive vote managed by the Alumni Association, yet it would also retain a level of gubernatorial authority over the Board.