Since writing yesterday’s column, details are emerging that strongly support my judgment that the governance failure at the University of Virginia is politically grounded. However, the political failure does not appear to be centered on any conflict between Democrats and Republicans. Rather it is grounded on money, the mother’s milk of all politics and on ignorance, which is the price of appointing unqualified individuals to boards of governance.
First let me outline a startling absence in the career backgrounds of the 16 members of the Board of Visitors at UVA. Not one board member is employed, or has ever been employed, in the higher education sector. That in itself is an appalling indictment of the appointment skills of Governors Mark Warner, Tim Kaine and Bob McDonnell.
The Rector, Helen Dragas, appointed buy Kaine in 2008, is a realter and Virginia Beach developer. She comes from a family of successful real estate developers and is CEO of a successful Virginia Beach development company founded by her father. So she does not even earn the kudos of establishing her own company. However, she surely has plenty of dollars to throw around on gubernatorial elections. Kaine was a fortunate recipient of Dragas monies.
The Vice Rector, Mark Kington, who yesterday had the decency to resign half way through his appointed term, is a man with a long history of throwing money into gubernatorial elections in a hunt for prestigious board appointments. He first won an appointment to the UVA Board of Visitors in 2002 from then-Governor, Mark Warner, a former business partner, whose campaign he had helped to bankroll, in the tune of $131,000. In 2006, Kington switched parties and gambled $90,000 on the the Republican gubernatorial-hopeful, Jerry Kilgore, who lost to Democrat, Tim Kaine. Naturally, Kington lost his seat on the board. Recovering from this temporary setback, Kington, poured $176,000 into the 2010 campaign coffers of Bob McDonnell. Surprise, surprise, Kington was returnd to the board in 2010. Kington has made his money in capital management and he has plenty of it to throw around. Since 1997, he has expended $465,000 in a bipartisan fashion on Virginia candidates. Whatever it takes to secure that coveted board appointment is his evident cynical political philosophy.
Dragas and Kington merit such detailed evaluation because they were the two key players in ousting UVA President Teresa Sullivan after only two years in office. They campaigned against her under a curtain of secrecy, excluding many board members from their discussions until days before the ouster decision, never formally calling a board meeting to determine the most significant decision that any Board of Visitors will ever record. They are just the sort of self-seeking fat cats that should never play a significant role in the future of a great university. Of course, grateful governors would not necessarily agree with my assessment.
The remainder of the board, evidently, are spineless creatures – elsewise they would never have tolerated such a campaign of secrecy, without opening up board deliberations to the public arena. Their backgrounds are far removed from academia. One is the CEO of Houston’s largest beer distributor, one is the son of TV evangelist, Pat Robertson, at least two are successful realtors, three are employed in the health care industry, and the remainder are a mix of successful attorneys and successful business men and women. All of them have plenty of money to throw into the political arena. None of them has any seriously relevant knowledge of the academy.
It turns out that every member of the Board of Visitors is a business simpleton, each pushing for the President to rush into online rather than classroom instruction. If that is a business model for a university, it is one destined to take down a leading institution of higher education. Online instruction is an offering attractive to individuals who cannot gain entry into mainstream universities. The University of Phoenix – with a graduation rate of 5 per cent of its students – is the model for online education. Anyone pressing for online instruction in a major university is either stupid or criminally ill-informed about the nature of higher education. My guess is that the UVA Board of Visitors is a natural political blend of both these negative qualities.
Not a single member of the Board holds a doctoral degree in any discipline. And we are talking here about one of the nation’s foremost universities. The UVA faculty should rise up and demand that they be tossed out of office and replaced by fully-qualified substitutes. I have no doubt that Thomas Jefferson would have politely pushed each and every current member of the board off the campus of his beloved academical village.
Follow the money is the fundamental public choice hypothesis that explains behavior in political markets. Here is yet another example of the power of that hypothesis. When this occurs under the shadow of Monticello, one can only imagine with horror what happens at lesser state universities.