Category Archives: Governance

Did the Board of Visitors Illegally Meet in Closed Session?

by James A. Bacon

Last week the University of Virginia leadership dodged and weaved and did everything it could to suppress an open, wide-ranging discussion at the Board of Visitors meeting of how Jewish students are treated at UVA.

Most pointedly, Rector Robert Hardie called a “hard stop” on board member Bert Ellis’ bid to focus on how the administration was allowing Jewish students to be subjected to hostile and discriminatory treatment. Hardie declared that the points raised by Ellis fell under the rubric of “student safety issues,” which the Board would discuss in closed session.

Was “student safety” a legitimate reason to reject Ellis’ call for open debate about one of the most contentious set of issues to afflict UVA in years?

I’m not a legal expert in government transparency, but it looks to me like UVA violated state open-government law in calling the closed session. I’ll make that case below. But I would welcome feedback from anyone with an expertise in this area to guide the Jefferson Council as we ponder whether to escalate our criticism of what was — whether legal or illegal — a grotesque lack of transparency at an institution supposedly committed to open inquiry. Continue reading

TJC’s 3rd Annual Meeting Will Explore UVA Governance

by James A. Bacon

The University of Virginia, like most public higher-ed institutions, is run by its president and senior executives. The Board of Visitors functions as a rubber stamp, approving whatever the administration puts before them. There is nothing unusual in the higher-ed world about the lopsided balance of power between UVA’s president and its board, but it is indisputably the case and must be recognized for what it is.

Where UVA differs from Ivy League universities and other elite private institutions is that its governing board is appointed by Virginia’s governor. That means UVA’s board is not a cozy, self-perpetuating clique. Governors can shake up the university power structure by appointing board members willing to challenge the status quo.

Virginia’s flagship university is nearing a pivot point. With the nomination of five new members (to be confirmed later by the General Assembly), Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s appointees, now a minority, will comprise a 13-to-4 majority of the Board effective July 1, 2014. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The impending new majority coincides with a dramatic shift in sentiment toward higher education. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling has restricted the use of race in admissions, and dissident alumni have ousted the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. UVA, too, is heading for a reckoning.

In a first-ever event of its kind, the Jefferson Council will devote its 3rd annual meeting April 9 to the theme of governance at UVA. An impressive line-up of speakers will examine the political and legal forces reshaping higher ed, explore how university governing boards can drive change, and critique the governance system at UVA.

Register here to attend this event. Continue reading

Scott Surovell’s End Run Around Jason Miyares

Sen. Scott Surovell

by James A. Bacon

The battle for control of higher-ed institutions in Virginia is boiling over into the state legislature. Senator Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, has submitted a bill, SB 506, that would allow Virginia’s public universities to hire their own legal counsel in place of lawyers answering to the Attorney General.

The bill would give governing boards of every institution authority over the hiring of “outside legal counsel, the oversight and management of any legal counsel, and the appointment of a general counsel to serve as the chief legal officer of the institution.”

Attorney General Jason Miyares

Public universities are classified as state agencies. Like other state agencies, their legal interests are represented by counsel that reports to the Office of Attorney General.

The underlying political conflict is who controls Virginia’s colleges and universities. The issue surfaced last year when former Bowdoin University President Clayton Rose addressed the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors and suggested that board members owe their primary loyalty to the institution, not their personal agendas. He received pushback from two board members appointed by Governor Glenn Youngkin who argued that the duty of board members is to represent the interests of the Commonwealth of Virginia, not the institution itself. Continue reading

What Does UVA Need in a University President?

by James A. Bacon

For anyone following governance issues at the University of Virginia, Bill Ackman’s Twitter broadside against Harvard’s now dethroned president Claudine Gay and its governing board is must reading. Ackman, the hedge-fund manager-turned-activist who spearheaded Gay’s overthrow, identifies serious systemic problems at Harvard, from its ponderous DEI bureaucracy to a tuition policy that prices out the middle class.

Every one of the pathologies he describes at Harvard plays out at UVA (although, one can argue, in diluted form). Little of this is new to readers of the Jefferson Council blog, for we have been documenting the problems for two years now. But Ackman raises one point that we have not considered: What qualifications should a governing board look for in a university president?

The question might seem academic, but UVa President Jim Ryan is surely feeling nervous these days. As dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education before ascending to his position at UVA, he is a product of the same hyper-progressive Harvard culture as Gay. And Liz Magill, the University of Pennsylvania president who was sacked after her abysmal testimony before Congress, was Ryan’s hand-picked provost for UVa before she moved on to the Ivy League. Ryan is less politically tone deaf, to be sure, he is popular among UVA students and faculty, and he has said all the right things regarding free speech and institutional neutrality. No one in authority has publicly called for his resignation. Even the Jefferson Council, as critical as it has been of UVA under Ryan’s tenure, has taken no position on whether he should stay or go.

Nevertheless, it is worth asking the question, in light of the presidential defenestrations at Harvard and Penn, what should an elite university look for in a president? Continue reading

Introducing the “TJC Forum”

by James A. Bacon

If you want to engage with other Wahoos to talk about sports, there are websites for that. If you want to connect with Wahoo parents, there are social media platforms for that. If you want to discuss governance at the University of Virginia, however, there is no forum. Some of the most contentious issues of our times — free speech, diversity, the cost of higher education, mental illness, safety, social justice — play out at UVa. We at the Jefferson Council are committed to provide a venue, this blog, where those controversies can be discussed in a civil, mutually respectful manner.

Yes, we have passionate views on those pressing issues, and so do some of our officers and supporters. But we don’t think we have a monopoly on the truth. Our vision is for UVa to be the most exciting university in America to learn, teach and create knowledge. Turning vision into reality requires a diversity of viewpoints and a willingness of students, faculty, staff, and alumni to challenge one another without fear of retribution. As proponents of free speech and open dialogue, we try to live up to our own ideals, not just by tolerating different views, but fostering debate that subjects our own views to critical analysis.

Accordingly, we are introducing the TJC Forum. Continue reading

Kalven Principles for UVa?

by James A. Bacon

Five years ago, University of Virginia President Jim Ryan took to the social media platform formerly known as Twitter to comment upon the horrific murder of 11 Jews in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh by a white nationalist.

“This kind of hate and violence goes against everything this country should stand for, and for which the University of Virginia will always stand,” he tweeted. “It falls to all of us to do everything we can, not just to keep our community safe but to prevent hate and bigotry from taking root in the first place.”

Someone warned him at the time to be careful, Ryan recalled in remarks to the UVa Board of Visitors Friday. Once he started commenting on news headlines, it would be difficult to stop. There is always something happening around the world. If university presidents comment on one story, they are expected to comment on the next. And if they don’t, people read meaning into the silence.

Maybe it’s time to rethink the practice of making public pronouncements on events of the day, Ryan suggested. Maybe it’s time to consider adopting the Kalven principles, a set of principles articulated by the University of Chicago’s Kalven Committee that urged colleges and universities to maintain institutional neutrality on social and political issues. Continue reading

Does UVa Need to Charge Higher Tuition to Keep Pay Competitive?

by James A. Bacon

The Ryan administration notched up two big wins in the University of Virginia Board of Visitors meeting Thursday and Friday. It pushed through 3% tuition increases for the next two academic years and it framed the budgetary debate to its advantage. Rather than engaging in a wide-ranging discussion of how UVa might hold down costs, the Board spent most of its time talking about the challenge of hiring and retaining faculty and staff, with the implicit assumption that staying competitive will require higher pay, more money, and higher tuitions.

The administration carefully orchestrated the discussion of tuition & fees from the very beginning — through an initial Finance Committee meeting in October, a public hearing on tuition increases at which only one person testified in November, and then the Board vote Friday. Each step of the way, the administration made lengthy presentations contending that UVa provides a superior value proposition to students, that it has restrained spending, and that inflationary pressures and cutbacks in state funding compel the university to raise tuition. Discussion was restricted to the data presented by the administration. Past efforts by board members to obtain additional information about UVa’s cost structure — in particular, about administrative costs — were ignored.

Bert Ellis, a former president of the Jefferson Council and appointee of Governor Glenn Youngkin, was the only board member to abstain from voting for the tuition increases. The seven other Youngkin appointees on the Board voted for the tuition increases, as did every holdover from the Northam administration.

The Ryan administration presented a case that was sometimes valid but frequently used cherrypicked data or made points that were shorn of context, as the Jefferson Council has documented in previous posts. There are no simple answers to the question of what the “right” level of tuition & fees should be. Optimal tradeoffs between affordability and costs require a vigorous and free-ranging debate at the Board level that simply did not occur. Continue reading

Should UVa Adopt Institutional Neutrality?

“Institutional neutrality” as conceived by Bing image creator.

From the latest issue of The Jefferson Independent

by Lauren Horan

Places of higher education exist to serve as sanctuaries for the exchange of ideas. With diverse student populations, a plethora of ethnic backgrounds and a variety of lived experiences, college campuses are enriched by the students that inhabit them.

However, with substantially sized student bodies, there will undoubtedly be a wide range of opinions regarding the highly contentious political and social issues of our time, with the Israel-Hamas war being one of them. This then presents the question of how higher institutions ought to react. When current events concern the students of these universities, are administrators obligated to issue a statement that demonstrates an ambiguously neutral stance, pacifying the anger of one half of the cohort while only enraging the other?

The Kalven Report, a document stipulating the University of Chicago’s role on institutional neutrality, arose as the creation of a committee by then-University President George Beadle. The purpose of the seven-person committee was to better understand how the University should approach “political and social action.” The committee’s efforts were prompted by the various protests over the social issues of the 1960s, including opposition to the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

Led by famous legal scholar Harry Kalven Jr., the committee published areport in November 1967 in which they firmly adopted a position of neutrality in order to best preserve the university’s goal of being a haven for “the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge.”

“The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic,” the Kalven committee expressed in their statement.
Read the whole thing.

Lauren Horan, a fourth year Government and Spanish student, serves on the Jefferson Council Board of Advisors.

Fear and Loathing of Youngkin’s Higher Ed Policy

by James A. Bacon

In early October Governor Glenn Youngkin asked Attorney General Jason Miyares for a formal opinion on a seemingly innocuous question: Whose interests are members of Virginia’s public university governing boards supposed to represent? Miyares responded that the “primary duty” of the boards of visitors is to the commonwealth, not to the institutions themselves. The conclusion would seem to be so obvious, so clearly the intent of the state code, that it doesn’t warrant discussion.

But some people espy a vague but malign intent behind the finding.

Speaking to the higher-ed trade journal, Inside Higher Ed, Claire Gastañaga, former director of Virginia’s ACLU and a former deputy attorney general overseeing Virginia’s public colleges and universities, said Miyares’ opinion is a threat to the autonomy of public institutions. In the publication’s words, she “fears it signals an attempt by the governor to justify the removal of board members whose actions don’t align with his priorities” and replace them with appointees who share his priorities. Gastañaga pointed to the Bert Ellis bogeyman as evidence that Youngkin is scheming something nefarious. Continue reading

“Who Exactly Is the University of Virginia Protecting?”

Rector Robert D. Hardie

by James A. Bacon

A week ago The Jefferson Council publicly questioned the decision to withhold publication of the investigation into the University’s failure to prevent the Nov. 13, 2022, mass shooting. We were particularly perplexed by who made the decision to delay release of the report until after the trial of the defendant Christopher Jones. The decision, announced by Rector Robert D. Hardie and President Jim Ryan, apparently was made without the approval of the Board of Visitors. (See “Will the Public Ever Get to See the Mass Shooting Report?“)

Now, as reported by The Daily Progress, others are asking questions.

The Daily Progress leads with the question, “Who exactly is the University of Virginia protecting?”

The newspaper quotes John Fishwick, former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia: “Whenever you have a public university with such a tragic event, it’s important for the public to know what happened. I think they should release it immediately.”

“Are they hiding something? I don’t know,” Michael Haggard, an attorney for the families of the victims, told The Daily Progress. “But I know one way you can stop the speculation on it: Release it to the families like you promised.” Continue reading