Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Virginian Pilot: University of Virginia Rector Helen Dragas Should Resign

As a double alumnus of the University of Virginia (The College as undergrad and Law) I've been holding my tongue at first on the machinations and behind closed doors intrigue that led to the ouster of the University's first woman president.  Ironically, the ouster was engineered by another woman, Helen Dragas (pictured at right), the daughter of wealthy Virginia Beach developer George Dragas.  While her defenders argue that Dragas is a bright and astute business woman, the truth is she inherited a thriving business from her family - i.e., construction company, real estate development company and a mortgage company division. And, in my opinion, like many other state board and board of visitors appointees, she basically bought her position as Rector of UVA by making the right (and large) political contributions. Sadly, that's the way things work in Virginia. Money ALWAYS trumps credentials, skills and true talent. Now, even the Virginian Pilot is calling for her resignation from the UVA Board of Visitors.  Here are highlights:

Helen Dragas, rector of the University of Virginia, has failed repeatedly to explain why President Teresa Sullivan was forced out a week ago. Dragas has, however, built a convincing case for another departure - her own.

The Virginia Beach developer and 1984 U.Va. grad was the architect of Sullivan's ouster. She is also the board's spokeswoman, a strange post for someone who has failed so utterly to communicate with everyone.
The resulting chaos has caused substantial damage to the commonwealth's premier institution of higher education. That, as much as anything, brought 2,000 to the Lawn on Monday afternoon for an unprecedented protest against the school's leaders.

At a special Board of Visitors meeting, Dragas continued to dodge demands - from students, faculty, lawmakers, taxpayers - for more details about the drastic differences between the board and Sullivan.  Instead, Dragas doubled down on her initial generalities and platitudes. Worse, her efforts to strike a conciliatory tone devolved into parody.

Dragas refused to address what happened or how. She was silent on reports that at least three board members knew nothing of efforts to remove Sullivan almost until a deal was struck. She declined to comment after one board member publicly opposed a motion to promote Carl Zeithaml, the dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, as interim president, effective Aug. 16.

She failed to address the resignation of Peter Kiernan, chairman of the Darden School Foundation's board of trustees, just days after he sent an email saying he had worked for weeks with Dragas, at the behest of two "important Virginia alums," on a new presidential search.

Sullivan addressed board members in private Monday. Her remarks, made public afterward, suggested she was unwilling to go along with demands for "corporate-style, top-down leadership." She talked about the culture of U.Va., and the need to protect and nurture it. She highlighted the administrative changes she had made, which provided a foundation for more significant change to come.  It was a comprehensive defense of her tenure, and the contrast with the inadequate indictment by the board could not have been clearer.

The Board of Visitors has the legal right to hire and fire the president. But it has a responsibility to explain its actions to the school's constituents.  Dragas and other board members have failed to even try. The result is tumult, the likes of which U.Va. has never seen.  She has shredded her credibility as a leader of the board, and so diminished the campus community's faith in her judgment that she is now simply ineffective.  

Dragas' term ends July 1, although she is eligible for reappointment by Gov. Bob McDonnell.  In the best interests of herself, the governor and the university she professes to love, Dragas and her collaborators should resign, as the Faculty Senate's executive council demanded Monday.

If Dragas does not, McDonnell should refuse to reappoint her. Otherwise he is signaling his support for what she and the board have done and how they've handled it.

A tremendous amount of work must be done at U.Va. to quell the suspicion, the anger and the distrust that have roiled the campus. That work cannot be done if the person responsible for it remains there.
In my view, Ms. Dragas is way over her head.  She's not her father who likely would have known better than to engage in such tactics and would have avoided seriously wounding UVA.  She needs to resign NOW.

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