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How Board of Visitors members get their seats

Campaign donations, politics and qualifications in U.Va. governing body’s appointment process

<p>The Board of Visitors is the University's governing body.&nbsp;</p>

The Board of Visitors is the University's governing body. 

On Nov. 7, the Commonwealth of Virginia will vote for its new governor and indirectly determine future appointments for the Board of Visitors of 15 public colleges across the state, including the University of Virginia. 

The governor has the power to appoint the 17 voting members of the Board. The 19-member board serves as the governing body of the school, voting on issues such as the budget, the proportion of out-of-state students and costs of tuition. The Board also appoints a student member and a faculty member, although they serve one-year terms as non-voting members. 

Of the 12 voting Board members who live in Virginia, 10 have contributed to the Democratic Party or a candidate affiliated with the Democratic Party in 2017. Only three of these 10 have also contributed to the Republican Party or an affiliated candidate in 2017. All data was collected using records available from the Virginia Public Access Project.

Vice Rector James B. Murray Jr., said it is not surprising that Board members are making contributions to political campaigns and parties.

“It might be desirable if the process were entirely apolitical, but it is highly politicized and always has been,” Murray said.

For the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election, several Board members made significant contributions to Democratic candidate Ralph Northam. None of the appointed Board members who live in Virginia have contributed to the Gillespie campaign.

Robert Hardie, who was appointed to the Board in June, donated over $125,000 to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign in 2013 and over $32,000 to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam’s campaign in 2017. Barbara Fried, who was appointed in 2014, has donated $113,000 to political causes just this year, including $31,000 to the Northam campaign. Thomas DePasquale, appointed in 2016, has donated close to $130,000 to Northam since 2015.

Although significant financial contributions may help political officials create closer relationships with potential appointees, the appointment process includes multiple checks and balances to minimize political favors or political interests. 

The Appointment Process

The Secretary of the Commonwealth oversees gubernatorial appointments to over 300 commissions and boards across the state, including the University’s Board of Visitors.

Before making suggestions to the governor, the secretary reaches out to the presidents of public institutions to discuss current board makeup, what perspectives or experience may be missing from the board and names of any people who may have expressed interest for a position. At many schools, including the University, the school’s alumni association will also send a list of suggested appointees to the governor. 

As of 2001, the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth has shared this information with the Virginia Commission on Higher Education Board Appointments. Former Gov. Mark Warner created the VCHEBA through an executive order as his first act in 2001. It was later codified in 2005 and has been altered over the years. The commission aims to provide the governor with a list of appointees for the Board of Visitors for institutions of higher education in the Commonwealth that have the experience and skills necessary to successfully govern.

Murray suggested the idea of the commission to Warner and chaired it from 2001 to 2009. 

“Under Governor Warner, I think the majority of the college presidents in the state would tell you that their boards improved dramatically,” Murray said. “They ended up with people who understood something about higher education [and] were competent to pass judgment on the performance of the administration.”

The governor appoints the members of this commission according to rules set out by the Virginia state code. The governor is not obligated to use the VCHEBA’s appointment suggestions.

According to Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson, McAuliffe has accepted the majority of appointment suggestions made by this commission when making his final decisions. After the governor announces his appointments, the Board appointees must be approved by the General Assembly.

When the party changes in the governor’s mansion, often all the current members of the Board are replaced with new members as their terms end, Murray said. This kind of upheaval strains the Board’s ability to understand a university’s key issues and factors influencing long-term financial and policy strategy.

Thomasson said turnover is common when there is a change in the political party of the governor. She added there is also turnover for any Board under a governor of the same party and even a second term of the same administration.

“It’s not just about money — it’s about value systems and beliefs, and any governor is going to tend to appoint people to boards that they feel share their beliefs and vision for how the state should move forward,” Thomasson said.

Earlier this year, for example, McAuliffe renewed the term of only one appointment made by former Gov. Bob McDonnell — that of John Griffin. Three other McDonnell appointees were not reappointed.


In 2012, questions related to patronage on the Board were raised by publications such as The New York Times Magazine after the failed ouster of University President Teresa Sullivan. The Board, led by then-Rector Helen Dragas and then-Vice Rector Mark Kington, asked Sullivan to resign after only two years of leading the University. 

Pointing out that none of the Board members at the time had a background in higher education, the same article in the New York Times Magazine questioned the qualifications of the appointed Board members to effectively run an institution. There were concerns that members of the Board were appointed not because of their qualifications but as a reward for large campaign contributions. 

Walter Heinecke, a member of the Executive Council of the Faculty Senate and an associate education professor, helped organize the rallies that took place on the Lawn supporting a reinstatement of Sullivan. Heinecke is personally critical of the gubernatorial appointment process for Board members.

“I think basically everyone knows that this is part of a sort of campaign contribution payback,” Heinecke said. “It leads to a certain class of types of people who end up being governing board members at U.Va., and it’s usually people who are very wealthy, who are tied to corporate interests and bring that perspective to their job as governing board members.”

When the Board came to the University for its September meeting, activist group U.Va. Students United echoed this sentiment, distributing a “What You Need to Know” Board factsheet across Grounds. On the flyer, UVASU said, “Often, the governor will give spots to campaign donors, and Board members will use their seats for little more than political footholds.”

U.Va. Students United did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

George Gilliam, a University history lecturer and former chairman of the State Board for Community Colleges, said it is rare that a Board member is appointed as a result of political donations.  

“There’s always one or two whose qualifications are the size of the checks that they wrote to the governor’s campaign, but those aren’t many,” Gilliam said. 

DePasquale said using political contributions to catch the governor’s eye is not the best way of getting him or her to know one’s name. 

“Is there a linkage between contributions and the governor knowing your name?” DePasquale said. “Well that is a way for him to know your name … that’s kind of the lazy man’s way.”

Instead, he says current Board members have demonstrated an ability to add value to the Board.

Thomasson said that putting Board appointments together is similar to solving a puzzle. 

“It’s really about the big picture — less about the individuals, but how those individuals are going to complement each other and really make up the big picture of the board,” Thomasson said.

When making appointments, McAuliffe focuses on promoting diversity through different perspectives, geographic backgrounds, ethnicities, age and gender, according to Thomasson. 

In general, the majority of Board appointees are University alumni, former University faculty or parents of University students. Virginia law mandates that at least 12 of the sitting Board members must be University alumni. Of the 17 appointees, 14 are University alumni.

Gilliam said there is a perceived bias to gubernatorial appointments, reflecting people the governor knows. Although Gilliam believes this to be the case, he personally does not mean this as a criticism.

“They’ve met a lot of people, and they know a lot of people,” Gilliam said. “They do go through the vetting process that I described, and most of these appointments have to be confirmed by the General Assembly.”

Thomasson said that there were often times when McAuliffe appointed people who he did not know or had no history of supporting him or his party.

“We make reappointments of people who Governor McDonnell put on the board,” Thomasson said. “[They are] people who maybe if you looked at their political giving history have been Republicans their entire lives, but they happen to be a value add for whatever institution or board they happen to serve on.”

Heinecke said his biggest concern is a lack of socioeconomic diversity on the board. Board members’ occupations include company executives, financial investors and lawyers.

“It’s really hard for someone who comes from a very, very wealthy background or a corporate background to understand what it’s like to be a low-income student in need of financial aid here,” Heinecke said.

Is there a better option?

Following the failed ouster, Media Studies Asst. Prof. William Little, wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post calling for a change in the Board appointment system. Little suggested that the University establish a selection committee comprised of University alumni, faculty, administration and business leaders to nominate and appoint Board members. 

Little declined to be interviewed for this article.

DePasquale said he believes switching to an election process would bring the most “electable” man or woman to office but not necessarily the most qualified. DePasquale supports the current appointment system.

“It’s not a random system,” DePasquale said. “It is a system where we empower someone to be our governor — we ask him to staff these institutions across the board.”

Murray said that although there may be a better way, taking away the governor’s power to appoint members of the Board is not politically feasible.

Still, others like Heinecke said Virginia should look into ways to make Board appointments more democratic and diverse. 

“If the way that governing board members become governing board members is not so public and not so democratic, it’s problematic for the functioning and mission of public universities,” Heinecke said.

Correction: This article incorrectly noted that Board members are not reimbursed for their travel and lodging expenses. According to University Spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn, Board members can be reimbursed if they request it. The paragraph containing the error has been removed from this article. 


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