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Board of Visitors defines working relationship with University President Jim Ryan

Members met for an open conversation on leadership with former president of Bowdoin College

Rose emphasized that respect for the larger organization and a strong leader is crucial to an organization’s success.
Rose emphasized that respect for the larger organization and a strong leader is crucial to an organization’s success.

The Board of Visitors discussed the Board’s relationship with University president Jim Ryan in the full board leadership meeting Friday. Led by former President of Bowdoin College Clayton S. Rose, the meeting served as a reminder of the Board’s duties, both to the state and the University. 

This is the first year that the full Board meeting has been split into two sessions — the Board convened for a business meeting at 10:30 a.m. earlier that morning. Ryan began the afternoon meeting by saying he would typically use the meeting to share yearly priorities with the Board, but this year decided to turn the conversation over to Rose for a broader discussion on the Board’s role. 

Rose currently teaches at Harvard Business School and serves as a director at the Bank of America.

Much of Rose’s address to the Board centered around respect for central leadership as a crucial pillar in an organization’s success. Given his experience serving on boards and as a university president, Rose said he would defer to the president’s judgment eight out of 10 times. 

“At the end of the day, it's really about the notion that there is an institutional perspective that is required of Board members and trustees,” Rose said.

The Statement of Visitor Responsibilities outlines these less formally stated requirements of members, including working “collegially” with each other and University leadership and promoting the role of the Board as a “policy-making oversight body that supports the president” and University administrators and faculty. 

Recently appointed member Rachel Sheridan said she sees the Board as a place where participants feel comfortable engaging in thoughtful dialogue but asked Rose to further define Ryan’s role in bringing forth issues for the Board’s consideration.

Virginia code § 23.1-1301 broadly defines the Board’s powers as “making regulations and policies concerning the institution” along with managing funds, approving the budget and approving the chief executive officer. Per the Board’s website, the group is responsible for “long-term planning of the University,” including approving policies and budgets and “the preservation of the University's many traditions.” 

The Board of Visitors manual details the Board’s powers in further detail, including “the establishment of general education policy,” “the fixing of tuition charges, other fees and room rentals” and “the care and preservation of all property belonging to the University.”

In response to the United State Supreme Court's ruling ending affirmative action this June, Ryan and Provost Ian Baucom announced a new admission policy and redesigned essay questions. Board member Bert Ellis told Bacon’s Rebellion that he sees admissions policy as the Board’s direct responsibility. Ryan allegedly alerted the Board to these changes just one day before the public announcement after the policy had already been approved by the Office of the University Counsel. 

While Virginia code outlines that admissions policies shall remain the responsibility of individual governing boards at public universities, this power is not stated explicitly in the Board’s manual.  

Rose said while there is not always an absolute line defining which topics fall under the Board’s authority, members should communicate with Ryan and understand differences in opinion.

“[Defining which topics fall under the Board’s purview] is a great conversation to have, right, in the context that this is a normal part of a board-president relationship,” Rose said. “And that conversation needs to go on as part of the normal rhythm of that relationship.”

Tensions between the Board and University leadership erupted last February when a Freedom of Information act revealed disparaging text messages from recently appointed Board member Bert Ellis. In communications with University officials and other Board members, Ellis condemned University administration and liberal student groups.

The Board addressed this leak during last March’s full Board meeting when former Rector Whittington Clement said the messages contradict the University’s sense of professionalism and community. Ellis apologized but declined to provide further comment.

Rose said strong organizations have boards that support administration and work within well-defined roles.

“When boards move too far into the weeds, they end up tending to make bad decisions because they don't have all of the facts at their disposal,” Rose said. “It's not the nature of the work that a board does.”  

In a more specific discussion of the Board’s role in finances, Board member James Murray specifically questioned how the Board should prioritize the University’s growth while maintaining affordable tuition as a public institution.

Rose responded that although the decision may vary based on opinion, the conversation must involve collaboration between Board members and Ryan.

Tuition and fees for an in-state undergraduate student in the College cost $18,816 for the 2023-24 school year — “additional fees” including housing, food and other miscellaneous equipment bring the total cost for an in-state first-year student to $37,828. 

Tuition has increased in past years and will likely continue to increase as the University recovers from tuition freezes during the COVID-19 pandemic. During a June meeting, the Board previously reduced tuition increases for in-state undergraduate students from 3.7 percent to 3 percent at the request of the Virginia Secretary of Education. 

Board member L.F. Payne said the Board’s role is to find the sweet spot between affordability and excellence, especially given the University’s status as a public university.

“It’s not only about… being the most excellent, but it’s also what’s affordable," Payne said. “What are we doing on behalf of all the citizens of Virginia that we’re responding to?”

Rather than defining exactly how administration implements its financial allocations, Board member Carlos Brown said the Board’s role is simply to set numbers for budget and tuition. Brown said the Board sets a fence and allows University administration to run within that “pasture”. 

“I think that when there's a tension, it’s because as Board members, we want to get in the pasture,” Brown said.

Similarly, Rose said that boards serve to focus on the institution's best interests instead of directly managing situations. Given this fiduciary duty of the Board to the University, Rose affirmed the Board should run as a single unit rather than a collection of individuals with their own agendas.

“At the end of the day, it's really about the notion that there is an institutional perspective that is required of Board members and trustees,” Rose said.

The Full Board will convene again during the December meetings of the Board of Visitors.

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