Board members donate thousands to political campaigns
Multiple links between members and governors who secured board appointments
Recent data from the Virginia Public Access Project shows 15 of the 17 current Board of Visitors members contributed to the campaigns of the governors who nominated them, reflecting a statewide trend of political contributors being placed on public university governing bodies.
Fourteen of those 15 contributed to current Gov. Bob McDonnell’s campaign. But McDonnell spokesperson Paul Shanks pointed instead to other demographic markers of the University’s Board members.
“The University of Virginia Board of Visitors is one of the most competitive boards in the Commonwealth and it currently consists of 13 U.Va. alumni out of 17 seats,” Shanks said in an email.
The contributions made by Board members to McDonnell’s campaign directly total $293,396 — a number which grows greatly when adding in donations to Political Action Committees. Donations to PACs, which are known as “soft money” contributions, are not subject to the same limitations as contributions directly to political campaigns, provided that these PACs do not coordinate with the candidate.
Shanks, however, denied any causal link between financial support and appointment to the Board.
“The vetting process for potential board members consists of reviewing their professional and personal qualifications and determining their commitment to helping lead these schools,” he said. “Nothing else is considered or of interest.”
Since 2004, the Board has collectively donated $2,223,565 to political causes. Of this, approximately 85 percent has gone to Republican causes, 13 percent has gone to independent causes, and slightly more than 1 percent has gone to Democratic causes.
Former Rector Helen Dragas, who was appointed during Tim Kaine’s term as governor, is the only Board member to have donated more money to Democratic causes than to Republican causes. Included in these donations is one directly to Kaine’s gubernatorial campaign, totaling $1,000.
Current rector George Martin has donated about $12,000 to political campaigns, including $800 to Democrats and $6,846 to independent recipients such the PAC for his employer, McGuire Woods LLP.
Vice Rector William Goodwin Jr. is the most active political donor on the Board, having contributed $1,156,989 in total to mostly Republican causes. Marvin Gilliam, Jr. and John L. Nau, III are also large donors, having given $522,882 and $238,630 respectively.
The correlation between political contributions and Board appointments have led some to question the Board’s selection method. “Personally, I like the idea of our alumni electing several Board members via a competitive vote managed by the Alumni Association,” Politics Prof. Larry Sabato said.
There are no plans to change the selection process for the Board, despite recent proposals like those by University alumnus Jeffrey Walker. “The system is the will of the voters,” said Kirsten Nelson, spokesperson for the state council for higher education in Virginia. “It’s up to Virginians to decide what they want.”
University spokesperson McGregor McCance said the University respects the current Board member selection process.
Jordan Bower contributed to this story.