Category Archives: Governance

UVa’s “Agency” Problem

by James A. Bacon

Last week the Ryan administration presented a graph to the Board of Visitors showing how tuition & fees for undergraduate Virginia students is lower at the University of Virginia than at any other Top 50 higher-ed institution in the country. As we noted in our post last week, the comparison comes with so many caveats as to be useless. But the implication was obvious as the Board undergoes the three-month process of setting tuition & fees for the next two years: UVa is a bargain.

But maybe not. UVa officials have long basked in the university’s reputation as one of the “best values” in higher-ed. That reputation takes a beating in a new Wall Street Journal ranking of “best values” based on a calculation of how many years it would take for someone earning the median earnings 10 years after graduation to pay off the net cost of attendance over four years. UVa ranks 74th nationally.

Rankings vary widely depending upon how they are constructed, so the WSJ exercise in calculating educational value should be taken with a grain of salt. Public universities, which draw their student bodies disproportionately from smaller pools of talent in the states they serve, are at an inherent disadvantage compared to elite institutions that recruit nationally. UVa fares better in rankings using different methodologies. But the Journal’s ranking should puncture any illusions that UVa offers a uniquely compelling educational proposition. Continue reading

Serve the University’s Interests, UVa Board Members Told

Clayton Rose addressing the University of Virginia Board of Visitors

by James A. Bacon

In their 2020 book on higher-ed governance, “Runaway College Costs,” James V. Koch and Richard J. Cebula elaborate on how university presidents manipulate their boards. Flattery and the bestowal of small perks is one ubiquitous tactic. Controlling the presentation of information is another. Isolating troublesome board members under the guise of maintaining collegiality is yet another.

Write Koch and Cebula:

Nonconforming board members are … often urged by their colleagues to offer support for the institution and to “show respect.” Public unanimity is encouraged at most board meetings; contrary trustees usually are advised to air their grievances in private and not to “disrupt” board meetings.

Such calls for civility and solidarity were heard Friday at the University of Virginia Board of Visitors meeting. Clayton Rose, a Harvard business school professor and former president of Bowdoin College, led a discussion on what Rector Robert Hardie described as “best practices in board governance.”

In his framing of the discussion, Rose argued, among other things, that “high functioning boards” have “respectful” discussions with the president and other board members on key issues, listen well to colleagues, acknowledge differing points of view, speak with one voice and, once a decision has been made, support it. Continue reading

Ryan Ignored Board of Visitors in Formulating Admissions Policy

Screen capture from UVa’s “Common Application” form. UVa no longer has a checkbox for race — but it does ask if applicants belong to a Virginia-recognized Indian tribe and if they identify as a “sexual minority.” The applications also invite applicants to share their “personal or historic connection with UVa,” including legacy status and descent from “ancestors who labored at UVa.”

by James A. Bacon

When University of Virginia President Jim Ryan and Provost Ian Baucom announced the university’s new admissions policy last week, they made a point of saying that they had sought input and guidance from “leaders across the university,” including members of the Office of University Counsel.

But one key group was not consulted: the Board of Visitors.

That’s noteworthy because state code says the Board of Visitors sets the university’s admissions policy.

Describing the powers and authorities of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), state code notes that the SCHEV shall prepare enrollment projections for Virginia’s public colleges and universities. However, “the student admissions policies for such institutions and their specific programs shall remain the sole responsibilities of the individual governing boards.”

Not university presidents — the governing boards. Continue reading

Info-Wars at UVa: Who Decides What the BoV Needs to Hear?

Provost Ian Baucom

by James A. Bacon

Last October University of Virginia Provost Ian Baucom briefed the Faculty Senate executive committee about a package of four multimillion-dollar academic initiatives that were in the works. The camera angle in the video recording shows him as a tiny, barely discernible figure at the far end of a long conference table. But his fast-clipped, staccato voice comes through loud and clear.

One initiative would address society’s “Grand Challenges” while another would build the university’s R&D infrastructure. Two others, largely geared to the pursuit of diversity, would set up a $20 million fund to aid the recruitment of graduate students and a $20 million fund to boost recruitment of “under-represented” faculty.

Members of the Faculty Senate were on board with the diversity programs, and Baucom felt at ease talking about them. “Behind [the faculty-recruitment initiative],” he said, “is the reaffirmation of the Audacious Futures Report to double the number of under-represented faculty. The president and I have been very clear that he stands by that goal.”

Four months later when the initiatives had moved further through the administrative pipeline, though, the Provost was less forthcoming with the Board of Visitors than he had been with the faculty. He described the Grand Challenges and R&D initiatives in considerable detail, but barely acknowledged the other two strategic priorities. He never explained that the faculty and graduate-student initiatives were designed in part to advance diversity.

The dichotomy in Baucom’s presentations raises important questions of governance at UVa. At a time when racial preferences in admissions and hiring are coming under increasing scrutiny, how much information about those practices is the Ryan administration withholding from the Board of Visitors? Who decides what to tell the Board? What power does the Board have to demand a fuller accounting? Continue reading

Who Runs UVa? Part II

by James A. Bacon

In past posts the Jefferson Council has highlighted a recently published screed, “We’re Pissed Off; You Should Be Too,” that criticizes the governance structure of the University of Virginia. Among other grievances voiced, the authors note that state government provides only 11% of the funding for UVa’s academic division, yet the state controls the appointment of 1oo% of the board seats. The governance structure should be more “democratic,” they contend. Students and faculty should be given voting seats on the board.

“Currently, the BOV oversees 28,361 employees, as well as 23,721 undergraduate and graduate students. There are only 3 ways a BOV member can be removed, and none of them involve us,” laments the tract. (Emphasis in the original.) “The only apparatuses that have power over the BOV are other BOV members and the governor.”

Message to UVa lefties: The Board of Visitors is accountable to the citizens of Virginia — not you. You are employees, not owners. The Commonwealth of Virginia owns UVa, and the governance structure is designed to serve the citizenry, not university employees. Continue reading

Who Really Runs UVa?

by James A. Bacon

Earlier this month, an anonymous group distributed a pamphlet, “We’re Pissed Off: You Should Be, too,” on the University of Virginia grounds that issued a broadside against the university’s governance structure. Although Board of Visitors member Bert Ellis was the primary object of their ire, the authors criticized the Board generally as “an undemocratic institution.”

“Seventeen people who are appointed by the State, which only provides 11% of UVA’s academic division’s funds, are deciding where 100% of it goes as the BOV gets the final say over approval of the annual budget,” states the pamphlet. “The Board of Visitors (BOV) as an institution is inherently undemocratic. It does not have enough checks and balances put into place to protect students, as well as faculty, staff, and UVA’s administration.”

This is a useful conversation to have. From the student’s or graduate student’s perspective, I suppose, the Board does seem undemocratic. Board members are appointed by Virginia’s governor. Neither students nor faculty get to vote on who serves on the board. But, then, the taxpayers of Virginia don’t get a direct vote either. Neither do parents paying tuition. Neither do alumni who collectively contribute as much to UVa’s funding as the Commonwealth of Virginia does. (Philanthropy and endowment income have surpassed state contributions as a revenue source.)

UVa, like other higher-ed institutions, is a strange beast. Its rules of governance are unlike those of government, or corporations, or charitable organizations. UVa is more like a feudal institution. It has an academic division and a healthcare division. The academic division has 13 colleges and schools, each with its own dean and varying degrees of autonomy and philanthropic funding. Students have a significant role in self governance. So do faculty. Affiliated with the university is a bewildering assemblage of autonomous groups that carry out important functions, each with their own boards.

Nominally, the Board of Visitors governs this feudal kingdom. But in reality it does not exercise much power. It is easily manipulated by the administration. This is not unique to UVa or a rap on President Jim Ryan. It’s the way almost all universities work. Continue reading

Being “Pissed Off” Is Not a Solution

by James A. Bacon

Last week an unidentified group distributed a pamphlet addressed to the Board of Visitors: “We’re Pissed Off. You Should Be Too.” The tract argued that the governance structure at UVa is undemocratic, that faculty and student workers are underpaid, and that Board of Visitors member Bert Ellis (and Jefferson Council president) is an abomination who should be expelled from the board or, at the very least, be removed from his board committee assignments.

The authors did themselves no credit when referring to Ellis as “a known racist, homophobe, and bigoted asshole of a human being.” (The bold face is in the pamphlet.) That is not an invitation to a creating a dialogue and working out differences.

Having countered the slanders against Ellis elsewhere, I will not address them here. Rather, my intention is to take seriously the “We’re Pissed Off” critique of UVa’s governance structure. As puerile as its language is, the pamphlet is the only analysis we’ve seen (other than our own) that questions how UVa is run.

You will never see the issues raised by “We’re Pissed Off” in UVa Today, the mouthpiece of the Ryan administration, or in Virginia, the house organ of the University of Virginia Alumni Association. Such perspectives are rare even in the pages of the Cavalier Daily, which fixates on issues of racial, sexual and gender identity rather than how the university is governed.

We think the authors of “We’re Pissed Off” are wrong on almost every count. But occasionally they make a valid point. And other than their unhinged personal attacks on Ellis, they address important matters that warrant an open and honest discussion. These include such questions as: Continue reading

Not Gilly Sullivan’s Alumni Association Anymore

Gilly Sullivan

by James A. Bacon

Aiming to address the lamentable decline in state/local news coverage, States Newsroom supports local news operations in 29 states, including Virginia. As Jim Sherlock detailed here, the nonprofit organization was launched in 2019 by the left-of-center Hopewell Fund, which itself is managed by the left-of-center Arabella Advisors. Its Virginia Mercury digital publication has made a valuable contribution to Virginia journalism by breaking many important stories. While the Mercury can credibly profess to be politically “nonpartisan,” its news coverage leans hard to the port side of environmental and social-justice issues.

In a nod to transparency, States Newsroom publishes the names of all individuals and groups that have contributed $500 or more since November 2019. One of the names listed is the “University of Virginia Alumni Association.”

Conservative UVa alumni might ask themselves the question: Why is their alumni association contributing funds to a left-of-center news organization?

I posed that question to Richard Gard, vice president of communications for the association. It turns out that the alumni association did not make the contribution. Rather, it acted as a pass-through for another UVa-affiliated entity.

And therein lies a story illustrating the opaque organizational structure of the University of Virginia and its Oort Cloud of satellite foundations and affiliated groups. Continue reading

Bureaucracy Watch: UVa vs. GMU


In a presentation to its Board of Visitors, administrators at George Mason University showed a graph (seen above) comparing the number of employees per student at Virginia’s six public research universities. GMU shared with Old Dominion University the distinction of having the lowest employee-student ratio of the six. The purpose, of course, was to make the GMU administration look good by comparison.

Perhaps it’s a chart that the UVa Board of Visitors should see as well, though for entirely different reasons. By this reckoning, UVa has two-and-a-half times as many employees per student as GMU. On the face of it, that seems scandalous.

The disparity is so stark that one might legitimately inquire if the GMU functionaries who compiled this data were comparing apples with apples, so I don’t rush to any judgment. However, it would seem reasonable for UVa’s board members to ask for an explanation.

— JAB

Sorry, Lefties, But Racists Don’t Invest In Black Enterprise


by James A. Bacon

The broadsides against Bert Ellis are going national. Inside Higher Education, the higher-ed trade publication, has published an article highlighting the growing controversy over Ellis’ appointment to the University of Virginia Board of Visitors. The article quotes Eva Surovell, editor-in-chief of The Cavalier Daily, whose articles sparked the furor, as saying that developments at UVa reflect the larger campus culture wars across the country.

That observation is true enough. Unfortunately, Surovell goes on to say this: “We’re just not unique in that really conservative voices are nostalgic for a time when women, when Black people and when other people of color were either banned or much less of a population here at UVA.”

Translation: Ellis and his alumni allies are reactionary racists and sexists.

I’ve got news for Ms. Surovell: Bert Ellis is CEO of Johnson Energy Storage, a developer of solid-state energy storage solutions founded by African American inventor Lonnie Johnson. Racists don’t invest in minority-owned enterprises. Racists don’t serve as CEOs of companies founded by minority entrepreneurs. Continue reading