At U-Va., a Case Study of Boards Gone Wrong

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June 19, 2012; Source: Washington Post

If NPQ Newswire readers haven’t yet read about the state of utter confusion at the University of Virginia after its governing board ousted University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan, please take a look at this example of some pretty horrendous, high-handed, tone deaf board behavior. For all we know, the board, led by one Helen E. Dragas, may or may not have correctly identified shortcomings in Sullivan’s leadership that needed to be corrected. In any case, the board dismissed Sullivan via phone call, rather than a face-to-face meeting.

The result is an uproar that U-Va. hasn’t seen since the place was established by Thomas Jefferson. The faculty is pretty much siding with Sullivan (who is also a faculty member), the board chose an interim replacement who won’t take over while there is debate about reinstating Sullivan, former Gov. Tim Kaine has called for the board to undo its decision on Sullivan, and current Gov. Bob McDonnell has threatened to sack the entire board. Expect the U-Va. board’s behavior during the past couple of weeks in your board training curriculum shortly and for some time to come—as a case study of boards gone wrong.

Even Dragas has contritely admitted that the board didn’t handle the Sullivan dismissal appropriately and she has apologized, though it is sort of unclear to whom she is apologizing. But something struck us about the U-Va. board: who are these people, anyhow? What makes them qualified to be board members, much less board members of one of the most prestigious universities in the United States?{loadmodule mod_banners,Newswire Subscription Plea}

Half were appointed by former Gov. Kaine, a Democrat, and half were appointed by current Gov. McDonnell, a Republican. Here’s a quiz. Read the names and job titles of these U-Va. board members below and tell us which were appointed by the Democrat and which were appointed by the Republican:

  1. Helen E. Dragas, real estate developer
  2. Hunter E. Craig, real estate developer
  3. W. Heywood Fralin, CEO, Medical Facilities of America
  4. Marvin W. Gilliam, managing partner, MAM Development and Madison Services
  5. Mark J. Kington, businessman
  6. Timothy B. Robertson, head of an investment holding company and son of televangelist Pat Robertson
  7. Robert D. Hardle, managing director, Level One Partners
  8. A. MacDonald Caputo, advisory director, Morgan Stanley
  9. Stephen P. Long, partner, Commonwealth Pain Specialists
  10. Allen A. Diamonstein, senior partner, Patten, Wormam, Hatten & Diamonstein
  11. Glynn D. Key, general counsel, GE Water and Process Technologies
  12. Allison Cryor DiNardo, president, King Street Wireless

Here’s the answer key (D for Democratic, R for Republican): A.-D; B.-R; C.-D; D.-R; E.-R; F.-R; G.-D; H.-D; I.-R; J.-D; K.-D; L.-R.

How many did you get right? Can you figure out the kind of person a Democratic governor appoints to the university board versus a Republican? How could you? Does it seem to have mattered in the slightest? They’re all business people! Both governors seemed to have had blind faith in the idea that bottom line-oriented business people possessed the necessary talents and skills to govern the University of Virginia. Notice who’s missing? How about educators, public servants, or people working for nonprofit organizations as human service providers? What were the governors thinking when they went totally corporate for the composition of the U-Va. board?

There have been calls from critics that “diversity” was missing on the U-Va. board, which included few women and even fewer persons of color. But one element of diversity that was really missing was one of mental framework, as the U-Va. board is solely a businessman and businesswoman’s board. Haven’t we yet learned that the magic elixir of business is more magic than elixir? Gov. McDonnell, if you decide to ask these people for their resignations en masse, do consider appointing a different cast of characters drawn from something other than the for-profit business sector.—Rick Cohen

  • Susan Casscells

    My husband and I are alumnus of the University of Virginia as are our three children. We are members of two boards at the University so we are highly invested in the University community. Just to be correct, President Sullivan’s resignation did not come by telephone but in her office at a meeting with three executive committee members of the Board of Visitors.
    I agree with your assessment that the board’s behavior had “gone wrong” and that we will be studying what happened for years to come. I also believe that the politicization of the board is a new phenomena in our more polarized political culture where board positions are given to substantial donors. From this crisis, the University community will demand an improved governance structure with representatives from the broader university constituency. Finally, the most remarkable result of this “uproar” is that the University came together one and all to support President Sullivan and at the last, 13,000 people watched online as the board of visitors voted unanimously to reinstate her. I doubt that has ever happened in the history of major universities.