Board committee revises ethics policy, removes public dissent ban
Dragas says document lessens body's public accountability
Amid a flurry of public backlash, the Board of Visitors’ special committee on governance and engagement released a revised version of its draft Statement of Expectations last Wednesday.
The Board is required by state law to have a governance policy.
The original draft, which circulated following a July 30 committee meeting in Richmond, barred individual Board members from publicly speaking out against Board policies following a vote.
“Each Visitor should vote one’s conscience, confident that minority views will be respected,” the original draft read. “Once decisions are reached, however, Visitors shall publicly support, or at the very least not openly oppose, the Board’s action as a strong, visible consensus facilitates successful execution of policy and strategy.”
But the proposal — which Virginia state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, called “undemocratic” in The Washington Post — was revised last week in a new draft published on the Board of Visitors’ webpage.
The new language still encourages Board unity, saying that following a decision, “Visitors bear a collective responsibility to ensure, as much as possible, that the Board’s actions and decisions are successfully implemented.” Language specifically barring public dissent was stricken from the draft.
“Punishing or taking action against
Board members who spoke in good conscience
harkens to the worst kind of censorship.”
— Board member Helen Dragas
Board Rector George Keith Martin said this line of the new draft is intended to be an expectation of Visitors rather than a mandate limiting vocal dissent.
“What the board should strive to do is to reach a conclusion that is in the best interest of the University,” Martin said. “And then it’s our role, our job, to try to do our best to implement that strategy, or that project, or that position.”
If a Board member were to fall short of that expectation, Martin said he would be “disappointed, but that would be about it.”
University spokesperson McGregor McCance said the statement is a “social compact” among Board members.
“The revised draft clearly articulates that constructive dissent is encouraged and invited, but that once the full Board has reached a decision, the Statement of Expectations identifies the Rector (or a designee) as the Board’s spokesperson,” he said in an email.
Martin said the Statement encourages Board discussions that are robust and candid.
“We encourage dissent,” he said. “We want people to be engaged, but we want to have those conversations in the boardroom, because that’s where we all benefit from different points of view.”
Opposition — the Board’s Public Responsibility
Board member and former Rector Helen Dragas — whose recent disapproval of the Board’s decision to increase tuition rates sparked a back-and-forth with Martin in the Opinion pages of the Richmond Times Dispatch in May — said the revised proposal fails to adequately address her initial concerns with the document. The overarching tone of the document, she said, belies the public underpinnings of the University’s governing body.
“While this latest draft document relies on milder, more conciliatory language, it still calls for a dangerous, unnecessary retreat from public accountability and relies on a fundamentally flawed premise — that the University should be governed like a private entity or an independent non-profit,” Dragas said in an email. “The University of Virginia belongs to the people of Virginia. And Visitors, as appointed public officials, should ensure the University remains a public institution devoted to creating an excellent academic experience within the reach of all talented Virginia students.”
“Declaring that the University’s interests
outweigh those of Virginias equates to
declaring that U.Va. will not do what’s
best for the Commonwealth when self
interest dictates a different path.”
— Board member Helen Dragas
Dragas, who served as Board Rector from 2011-2013, said the document places the Board’s responsibility to the University ahead of its responsibility to the Virginia public.
“Declaring that the University’s interests outweigh those of Virginians equates to declaring that U.Va. will not do what’s best for the Commonwealth when self interest dictates a different path,” Dragas said. “We know what this can mean when it comes to tuition hikes and cuts in aid to students from low-income families. It arises every time there’s a push to spend precious resources on anything that does not support our public mission.”
Martin said the revised proposal is largely based off similar codes of conduct at other public institutions, including those in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Statement was drafted in consultation with Richard Chait, a Harvard Graduate Education School professor who specializes in university management. Chait has worked with public institutions such as Ohio State, Texas A&M and the University of California at San Francisco, as well as private institutions like Duke and Dartmouth.
“The committee specifically adopted or modeled this statement after policies of other public institutions,” Martin said. “I don’t think it’s inappropriate for a public institution to have this type of statement.”
Dragas said she was also concerned the statement would promote an “atmosphere of secrecy,” if adopted in its current form.
“Punishing or taking action against Board members who spoke in good conscience hearkens to the worst kind of censorship,” Dragas said. “These are not policies that foster good governance or public accountability.”
Required by Law
The implementation of this policy is part of a response to a 2013 law passed by the Virginia General Assembly known as the Landes Bill, which calls upon the governing boards of Virginia’s public universities to “create, monitor, oversee, and review compliance with a code of ethics for visitors.”
“Knowing what was intended by the patron
of that bill, I think the Board is on
the right course.”
— Board Rector George Martin
“State law approved in 2013 requires the boards of all public institutions in Va. to adopt and monitor a code of ethics,” McCance said. “For U.Va., this Statement is one of a number of efforts in the past year intended to improve governance and strengthen the partnership between the board and President Sullivan and her administration.”
As Rector, Martin said he feels it is legally necessary to adopt a supplemental code of ethics in order to comply with the legislation.
“Knowing what was intended by the patron of that bill, I think the Board is on the right course — and specifically the Governance and Engagement Committee — in proposing this statement of expectations because that is what we believe was contemplated by delegate Landes when he developed this legislation,” Martin said. “The point of the legislation was directed toward the boards; we need to have something that is board-specific.”
Dragas said she does not believe the proposal is required by law since the Board already complies with the University’s code of ethics.
“What the law states is that the Board is legally required to have a code of ethics,” she said. “Because the Board is covered under the University Code of Ethics … we already comply with this law. Anything else would be a disservice to Virginia’s citizens if it limited critically needed information, promoted secrecy, or inhibited a Visitor’s ability to communicate with those we serve.”
The Statement will undergo further revisions, Martin said, before the Committee puts it before the full Board at its meeting in Charlottesville on Sept. 11 and 12.