According to the Office of the President, the Board of Visitors is the University’s “highest oversight body.” Considering 17 of the 19 Board members are appointed by the governor, it is no surprise that appointees are often wealthy political donors with little, if any, experience in higher education. Additionally, this politically appointed board has sole authority in appointing one student and one faculty member to serve non-voting, advisory roles each year. Given the immense decision-making power of the Board, it is essential that the student and faculty advisory members be given a vote to tilt the balance of power back toward the community the Board should be serving.
Considering the vast array of issues the Board votes on each year, it is unclear why the student and faculty members’ opinions are not considered beyond a mere advisory role. Among its many responsibilities, the Board is charged with voting on strategic plans, overseeing the approval of new architectural changes to the school and appointing University presidents. But beyond its administrative responsibilities, the Board also oversees issues that directly affect students and faculty, including tuition increases, dining plans, academic programs and housing. Because all of these issues directly impact student and faculty life, their representatives should have a vote. Though some may contend students are unqualified and should not have a vote during Board meetings, there is nothing that makes the current voting members — who likely received their seats as a result political patronage — much more qualified to run an institution of higher education.
There are very few requirements for serving on the Board. As author Jeff Thomas recently lamented in a guest opinion column for The Cavalier Daily, “A study found that over nearly 20 years, just 3 percent of Board members had doctorate degrees but 91 percent made political contributions of over $1,000.” It appears that academic and administrative qualifications are hardly a factor in the appointment process. So long as you have made significant political contributions to a campaign that accords with the current governor’s political preferences, you’re a good contender for appointment.
The Board is also rather demographically and professionally homogeneous — many of them are extremely wealthy white men who are presidents or CEOs of major corporations.
Unfortunately, the current makeup of the Board makes it far more likely for them to make critical errors in judgment, as demonstrated by their failed attempt to remove former University President Teresa Sullivan in 2012. After citing “a philosophical difference of opinion” and vague financial concerns as the reason for her dismissal, former University Rector Helen E. Dragas announced the Board’s decision to the University community in early June 2012. The student body, faculty members and Sullivan herself were all blindsided by the Board’s request for her resignation.
At the time of this crisis, faculty and students — the people whose opinions should matter most — seemed to approve of Sullivan’s performance. After various faculty and student groups passed resolutions, signed petitions, and protested on the Lawn in opposition to the Board’s decision to oust Sullivan, the board reinstated her. During the showdown against the Board, prominent politics professor Larry Sabato tweeted, “Palace coup meets grassroots rebellion,” a statement which seemed to perfectly encapsulate the power dynamics at play. Although the University community was able to overcome this crisis of leadership, it should serve as a reminder of the importance of appointing members who are experienced in the realm of higher education.
Student and faculty input rather than donor preferences should be at the forefront of the Board’s concerns. If we continue to allow wealthy, inexperienced political appointees who are disconnected from the University to legislate on our behalf, we must also afford our more direct representatives equal power in the decision making process. If the Board believes the student and faculty members' voices are unworthy of a vote, then that shows better than anything else that the interests of the Board are not aligned with those of the University community.
The Cavalier Daily Editorial Board is composed of the Executive Editor, the Editor-in-Chief, the two Opinion Editors and their Senior Associate. The board can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.