UVA Rector Facing Uphill Reappointment Battle

Wednesday, Dec 12, 2012  |  Updated 3:21 PM EDT
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A national accrediting agency's decision to put the University of Virginia on warning following its governing board's failed attempt to oust the school's president over the summer could give lawmakers who want to deny the board's rector reappointment more ammunition.

When it convenes in January, the General Assembly will consider Gov. Bob McDonnell's appointments to various boards, including the University of Virginia's Board of Visitors. McDonnell reappointed Rector Helen Dragas to the board, much to the dismay of those who blamed her for the failed coup.

“I'm sure she's a fine person, but the public has to have confidence in its public institutions, and we have to get past this, and I'm not sure how we get past this with the same crew in place,” state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, told The Daily Progress http://bit.ly/W4JBaa .

Dragas did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges placed the university on warning Tuesday for breaking rules that say a minority of board members can't be in charge and that require a policy that identifies the faculty's role in governance. The warning status announced at the association's annual meeting will last 12 months, after which the panel will decide if further action is needed.

Dragas led the effort to oust President Teresa Sullivan, whose resignation shocked the campus community in June. After demand for an explanation, Dragas said the university wasn't acting quickly enough to address state and federal funding reductions, online education delivery and other challenges.

The Board of Visitors reinstated Sullivan two weeks later following protests by students, faculty, alumni and donors.

McDonnell reappointed Dragas days after Sullivan was reinstated, leading to outcry from many and the formation of a group aimed at getting her kicked off the board.

On Tuesday, McDonnell said the issues raised by the accrediting panel concerned board administrative procedures -- not the quality of the school or its faculty. He stood behind his decision to reappoint Dragas.

“I have great confidence in the ability of the newly constituted University of Virginia Board of Visitors and President Teresa Sullivan to address all accreditation and governance issues facing the university,” he said in a statement.

While a governor's appointments rarely are challenged, some legislators have said Dragas would face an uphill battle come January.

“It's just a continuing embarrassment,” said Deeds, McDonnell's Democratic foe in the 2009 gubernatorial race. “People say, `Let's get past it,' and I think we all need to get past it, and this warning is just evidence that we can't get past it until we make some structural changes.”

Deeds is a member of the Senate Privilege and Elections Committee, which could block Dragas's reappointment before it reaches the full Senate. Both chambers must vote on appointments, and McDonnell's fellow Republicans control both chambers.

Delegate David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville, said he gets stopped on the street by constituents all the time and advised to vote against Dragas's reappointment.

“I'd say it's about nine to one,” he said, adding, “It's hard for me to envision a scenario in which I vote for her reconfirmation.”

Virginia alumnus Richard Marks organized a group that has been calling for Dragas to resign. He called the accrediting warning “another colossal embarrassment” for the school and said it is further reason to get rid of Dragas.

“The reason is straightforward,” he said. “Ms. Dragas's decisions and actions in managing the board are at the center of this wholly unnecessary crisis.”

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