WHISNANT: A better Board

The Board of Visitors should be reformed to reflect the University's democratic values

It hasn’t been an easy few years for the Board of Visitors. Between the firestorm and popular outcry that resulted from University President Teresa Sullivan’s abrupt dismissal and reinstatement in June 2012 and the more recent protests over cuts to AccessUVa, the Board has been a lightning rod for dissent from both the student body and faculty more now than any other time in recent memory. Most Board members are thoughtful people who want the best for the University. But reforms need to be made to promote transparency and accountability. The recent unpopular decisions about the University’s leadership and student aid are not isolated actions; they are products of an undemocratic system that privileges connectedness above educational expertise.

The Sullivan ouster made the need for more accountability and democratic control of the Board painfully evident. Because of then-Rector Helen Dragas’ controversial actions leading up to Sullivan’s dismissal, the Faculty Senate overwhelmingly called for her resignation in a vote of no confidence, and more than 1,500 people signed a petition calling for her to step down as well. Despite this overwhelming dissent, Dragas continued to hold her position.

A similar situation occurred with the AccessUVa cuts. Though no polling has been done, the most visible sentiment at least has been one of frustration with the Board’s perceived insensitivity to the needs of poor families. There have been student-led protests, General Assembly delegates voicing their frustration, and many alumni participating with current students in the “I Am Not a Loan” campaign expressing their discontent with the decision. As with Sullivan’s resignation, popular sentiment has had little effect on creating any structural rather than cosmetic changes. Student and public opinion may have brought Sullivan back, but much of the membership of the Board remained in place with the same goals as before, and AccessUVa cuts remain policy.

Supporters of the current system will likely claim it is working as it is supposed to, but this could not be further from the truth. These recent decisions that do not reflect the wishes of students and faculty highlight the urgency of reforms, and it is misleading to say that there is no way for changes to be made. Depending on one’s comfort level with modifications to the current structure, there are a number of reforms ranging from modest to radical that would all have the effect of making the Board of Visitors work more for the University’s best interests.

One of the least disruptive, but still beneficial, changes would be for the University’s student body to lobby and vocally pressure the governor to nominate new kinds of Board members. The current voting make-up of the Board contains two lawyers, two developers, two doctors, two lobbyists, two telecom business owners, an advertising executive, an energy company CEO, a hedge fund manager, a distribution company CEO, the owner of a holding company, an investment corporation owner and one former university president. The Board is 94 percent white, 76 percent male and has only one member with an extensive professional background in academia.

With these demographics, it should hardly be surprising that the Board is proposing policies that primarily benefit upper-income and business school students. Even absent a reform in the structure of the Board, Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe should strive to nominate Board members who will bring fresh experiences and backgrounds to the University’s decision-making process. For instance, the AccessUVa cuts will disproportionately affect minorities, but there is not a single Hispanic member of the Board. It would also be difficult to see how the University would be negatively impacted by having more professors or former academic administrators on the Board who have first-hand experience with the impact of budget decisions on students and faculty. A Board member from the nonprofit sector who is not influenced by the desire to run the University like a for-profit corporation would also be a welcome addition.

A moderate but significant change would be to allow the student member on the Board to have a vote. Though this would not have proved decisive in the recent vote to cut AccessUVa, giving the University’s student representative voting power would make other Board members to take the concerns of the students more seriously and result in other members lobbying more aggressively for student approval. For a school that prides itself on its commitment to student self-governance, giving students representation on the body that matters the most would be a natural extension of this vision.

While most students who have served on the Board have had exemplary academic and extracurricular records, it is difficult to foist the mantle of representing the University’s entire diverse student body upon one person. In addition to granting the existing student representative on the Board a vote, more students could be added with voting powers or to give other Board members a better sense of the makeup of the student body. As the ratio of students to other Board members increases, so too will the ratio of actual University priorities to the Board’s agenda.

If the University is serious about keeping the Board democratically accountable, the Faculty Senate’s powers could be expanded beyond issuing strongly worded statements. Instead the Faculty Senate could receive some sort of referendum or veto power on crucial Board decisions. If, in the case of the Sullivan ouster, the Faculty Senate could override the Board’s decision with a two-thirds majority, the whole crisis could have been avoided. Similarly, the Faculty Senate could serve as a check to the excesses of a Board more captive to corporate interests than it would like to admit.

Perhaps the most radical and transformative change would be extending the referendum or veto to the student body. While this may seem unfathomable now, the underlying notions behind it are very traditional. The idea that people who are affected by government policies should have input on the crafting of those policies is one we adhere to in every other sphere of our nation’s civic life, and extending it to the student body of this University would dramatically reorient the priorities of the institution in a more inclusive way. Right now, the University likes to pride itself on student self-government, but if it only allows the Student Council and by extension the student body to opine on what’s going on versus actually change it, this commitment rings hollow. Such a veto or referendum might only be used in extreme cases or when the margin of a vote is especially close. But however it is implemented, it could lead to policies like expanded support for low-income students and a general reflection of the priorities of the people who actually participate in the daily life of the University.

Discussing these proposals to reform the Board can pave the way to creating an atmosphere in which the University acknowledges the Board’s limitations and problems. Instead of bemoaning the current state of affairs and wondering why things are so bad, we can work to perfect the vision of a democratic university. If self-governance is as critical to the University’s missions as we’ve been led to believe, making the Board more reflective of our Academical Village is only common sense.

Gray Whisnant is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Wednesdays.

Published December 3, 2013 in Opinion

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