The Virginia General Assembly approved a new four-year term Tuesday for the University of Virginia rector whose failed attempt to fire the school's president prompted a two-week campus revolt and a warning from an accrediting agency.
The House of Delegates voted 66-33 to confirm the reappointment of Helen Dragas to the university's Board of Visitors. Last week, the Senate approved Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's reappointment of Dragas, a Virginia Beach developer.
Dragas orchestrated last summer's surprise firing of university President Teresa Sullivan, igniting a firestorm of protests by faculty, students, alumni and the public. The Board of Visitors later reinstated Dragas. She and Sullivan have publicly reconciled and pledged to work together for the good of the university.
“I deeply appreciate the support of the Virginia House of Delegates,” Dragas said in a statement. “Many members clearly insisted on basing their final decision on objective facts. This vote affirms the critical value of independent board leadership and suggests a vote of confidence in our ability to work productively to address issues facing all of higher education.”
Reappointment opponents argued that Dragas should be held accountable for damage to the university, including the loss of donations and a decision by the Southern Association of College and Schools' Commission on Colleges to place the school on warning for possibly breaking governance rules in the secretive ouster attempt.
Delegate David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville and a graduate of the U.Va. law school, said “there were no rumblings of discontent” at the university before last June's hastily called Board of Visitors meeting where Sullivan's departure was announced. Subsequent inquiries into the firing found that Sullivan had done nothing wrong, he said.
“She had received a sterling evaluation just that previous October,” Toscano said. Nevertheless, he said, Sullivan was fired “without due process by a relatively small group of people who plotted secretly for months.”
He said it remains unclear whether Dragas recognizes the magnitude of the damage she caused.
Delegate Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania and chairman of the House committee that endorsed the reappointment, defended Dragas's actions. He said that while she admits things could have been handled better procedurally, most board members were dissatisfied with Sullivan's performance.
“They wish to put this behind them,” Cole said.
Other lawmakers noted that the General Assembly traditionally gives great deference to gubernatorial appointments. Delegate Lacey Putney, a Bedford County independent and the longest-serving member of the assembly, said “tons of controversial appointees” have been confirmed in his 51 years in office -- and most legislators felt McDonnell deserved the same consideration on the Dragas matter.
Opponents of Dragas disagreed, saying their authority to confirm appointments is more than a rubber stamp.
“If anything ever called out for rejection, this is it,” Toscano said.
Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Prince William, said Dragas violated “at least the spirit” of the state's open-meetings law by huddling one-on-one with other board members to gather a consensus for forcing Sullivan out without any public discussion or vote.
“We have an accountability issue here,” he said.
But Delegate Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, defended Dragas.
“She didn't want to create a lot of noise on this situation,” he said, adding that “she's been taking all the bullets and arrows” for everyone involved in the ouster attempt.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher education nonprofit, cheered the reappointment.
“The confirmation process in Virginia shows that trustees are accountable to the people,” Anne Neal, president of the organization, said in a written statement.
“The saga at U.Va. has shown that boards, while solely responsible for their institution, need to be transparent and inclusive in major decisions,” she said. “But it has also underscored the pushback trustees must be prepared to face when they ask tough questions and demand change.”