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.

In a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling restricting the use of race in college admissions, Ryan outlined a plan that would eliminate racial/ethnic-identity checkboxes for applicants to UVa but would allow students to discuss their race-based experiences in the essay portion of the application. He did not obtain the Board of Visitors’ approval for the plan. He did not even present the plan to the Board for feedback. He did notify members of the Board of his plan but provided only one-day notice.

The Supreme Court stated that schools could consider an applicant’s discussion “of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise,” Ryan and Baucom wrote in a message to the university community. “To the extent a candidate’s race or ethnicity is disclosed through this process, that information only will be considered as it relates to that person’s unique ability as an individual to contribute to the University, and not on the basis of race or ethnicity alone.”

While eliminating the checkbox for race/ethnicity, UVa’s new application form still asks if applicants are members of a Virginia-recognized Indian tribe or a “sexual minority.” The form also asks if the applicant has a “personal or historic connection” to UVa, such as descent from “ancestors who labored at UVa.”

Some members of the Board find the new admissions policy troublesome and believe Ryan should have presented his proposed changes to the Board. Announcing a fait accompli in an email to Board members 23 hours before sending out the announcement falls far short of the requirement spelled out in the state code, says Board member Bert Ellis. (Ellis co-founded the Jefferson Council but no longer holds an office in the organization.)

The Ryan administration has dropped the requirement for students to provide SAT or ACT test scores, although students may submit them voluntarily. Ellis is concerned that UVa is moving toward a “totally subjective basis” for evaluating students. Moreover, he says, relying upon an essay is problematic as students increasingly use artificial intelligence as a writing crutch. These are issues the Board should contend with, he says.

I asked university spokesman Brian Coy how Ryan interpreted the state code as permitting him to leave the Board of Visitors out of the decision-making loop.

He replied: “As our announcement stated, the University modified admissions practices in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in close coordination with the Office of the University Counsel. We are confident that the steps we took are consistent with state and federal law, as well as past practice here at UVA.”

Ryan’s decision to bypass the Board of Visitors represents a significant challenge for UVa’s new Rector, Robert Hardie, who assumed the position in July.

Last week the Jefferson Council alerted Hardie and other Board members to the fact that Baucom, in a discussion of major academic initiatives, had glossed over the fact in his presentation to the Board that between $20 million and $40 million had been allocated to programs for recruiting “under-represented” graduate students and faculty. Baucom had acknowledged in a presentation to the Faculty Senate that the decision required consultation with the Office of University Counsel, but neither the administration nor the University Counsel, who reports to Attorney General Jason Miyares, would respond to the Jefferson Council’s request for a description of that guidance.

Responding to an email from Jefferson Council president Tom Neale, Hardie wrote:

Thank you for your correspondence and sharing your concerns with the Board. I can assure you all members of the Board of Visitors take their fiduciary responsibilities seriously.

Following your letter, I spoke with Ian Baucom about these initiatives and how they align with our strategic plan. We all agree on the importance of keeping the full Board up to date on the implementation of that plan.

The administration’s responsibility to report major spending initiatives may seem self-evident to anyone who has served on a corporate board, but the obligation is not spelled out in the state code and may be subject to interpretation. The Board’s authority over admissions policy is spelled out.

Will Hardie fight to uphold the Board’s prerogatives? We’ll keep you posted.

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Nan Dee
Nan Dee
6 months ago

I’m beginning to think that I identify as a sexual minority as a heterosexual female! Seems like LGBTQIA-mnop+ is everywhere i look.

James B Newman
James B Newman
6 months ago

It increasingly becomes apparent that both Ryan and Baucom are very much entrenched in their continued insistence on all things DEI. Absence a radical change in position, it is perhaps time for the Board of Visitors to explore replacing both gentlemen. This is especially apparent in light of the roles both men played in the events explored in the recently filed civil matter in Federal Court …Morgan A Bettinger vs. The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia et.al. If the facts are as alleged in this matter, both the Attorney General and the US Civil Rights Division should perhaps launch civil investigations into both men. One also wonders given the honor code… why has the University allowed the cited “teenage activist” who is a student who admitted to false statements and multiple violations of the honor code allowed to remain at UVA?(See page 27 of Plaintiff’s filing).

The new Board of Visitors has much to consider and much to do.

Thomas Purkins
Thomas Purkins
6 months ago

My guess is that nothing substantive will happen until this time next year with the expiration of four more Board slots. The faculty and student member slots will also be open in 2024. Gov. Youngkin will have the opportunity to change the direction of the Board of Visitors and hopefully the future of UVA.

Practicing Lawyer
Practicing Lawyer
6 months ago
Reply to  Thomas Purkins

That’s what it looks like. The majority of the current Board is comprised of holdovers. Governor Youngkin will have appointed the majority of members come next July. If he continues to appoint quality members, they will be in a position to formally address problems like this. The leverage, however, exists right now. Respectfully, faithful members of the board could state what they expect from the administration at this September meeting, and alert them that, if the bureaucrats continue to inflict their personal preferences on the school rather than manage it consistently with the principles of the citizens of the Commonwealth, the board will vote to do AB&C next September. And if the board needs to wait that long, the board also will be reviewing the status of responsible persons for breach of their public duty. Why sit around? The public spoke very clearly the last election.

Martin Anthony Senell
Martin Anthony Senell
6 months ago

Nothing will change until next year. Hopefully, then the Governor and/or the Board of Visitors will fire Ryan, Baucom, and their ilk and start bringing back some semblance of normalcy to the University.

G. Richard Connolly
G. Richard Connolly
6 months ago

Time for Mr. “Wait, What?” to go. He doesn’t “seek to understand and then be understood.” He clearly has a private agenda leading to a dereliction of his duties and responsibilities as president of the University. I really thought he was going to listen to all points of view. He just can’t help himself; what’s worse is he feels the millennial money will save him. He earnestly believes in the course he has chosen as the right path forward. An honorable man, just misguided…………

Clarity77
Clarity77
6 months ago

The ball now is in the hands of the BOV. Ryan has made his “in your face” move and this will now be a test of the BOV members as to what they actually individually believe their role to be as to the governance of the University. A rubber stamp joke for Ryan or a body charged with fulfilling its stated in Virginia law duties as to ultimately safeguarding the will of the people of Virginia.
A fish rots from the head down and it is now glaringly obvious as to the rot in Ryan’s integrity. In their response we will soon be given a gauge as to the level of rot in the current makeup of the BOV and their choice as to their respective individual integrity. The UVA community and state citizenry will be watching and will take note. Integrity.

John McKnight
John McKnight
6 months ago

Article is slightly misleading, indicating that the Ryan Administration implemented the Common App Questions on Sexual Orientation and Native American Identity after SCOTUS’ opinion. These questions have been part of the application for quite some time now, as they were when I applied to the University.