The University of Virginia’s board recently, at the behest of some major donors, fired the President of the university. Slate magazine covers the story in detail entitled “Strategic Mumblespeak”. While there are many stories of donors excercising increasingly large influence over major public institutions that receive public funds, this case illustrates the downside to the reputation of donors who act in such a fashion. The firing has caused demonstrations and harsh criticisms of the board of the university.
Here is the original Slate article “Strategic Mumblespeak”
The article notes:
“The reason folks such as Dragas and Kiernan get to call the shots at major universities is that they write huge, tax-deductable checks to them. They buy influence and we subsidize their purchases. So too often an institution that is supposed to set its priorities based on the needs of a state or the needs of the planet instead alters its profile and curriculum to reflect the whims of the wealthy. Fortunately this does not happen often, and the vast majority of donors simply want to give back to the institutions that gave them so much. They ask nothing in return and admire the work we do. But it happens often enough to significantly undermine any sense of democratic accountability for public institutions.”
Here is another article from Slate: How the New Yorker’s Atul Gawande Caused the Debacle at UVA http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2012/06/helen_dragas_and_the_uva_board_took_a_bad_gamble_in_trying_to_fire_teresa_sullivan_in_secret_.single.html#pagebreak_anchor_2
Here is a letter from the governor of Virginia on this matter:
The governor notes in part:
“When arriving at its decision to ask for the resignation of President Sullivan, the Board of Visitors made procedural mistakes which its leaders have acknowledged, including a lack of transparency and a failure in communication. A vote to remove the President requiring two-thirds approval of the Board was not taken, and the multiple board meetings and the ensuing predictable press frenzy have created great uncertainty imperiling the University’s ability to move forward.
I have communicated these concerns to the Board in a separate letter that is attached.
At the same time, I am concerned about certain actions and statements from some members of the public and the University community. This should be viewed as a disagreement within the family, not a war. Mr. Jefferson would have expected a higher level of discourse where people forcefully and civilly express their concerns. He noted in his first inaugural address that ‘every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.’ All agree with the principle that UVA is a world-class university where continual growth and progress is needed to keep America competitive, and to advance the acquisition of knowledge that will improve the human condition.
The lack of an open and clear process of asking for the resignation of the first female President of UVA, as well as the vitriolic comments directed at the first female rector of UVA , are equally deplorable. I have learned of the defacement of property on Grounds, threats by some faculty or staff to not acknowledge the legitimacy of an interim President elected by a 12-1 vote of the Board, and a few faculty and staff urging others to quit. While emotions are expectedly high in such matters, these actions reflect poorly on the University and must end immediately.”
Here is an article in The Hook: http://www.readthehook.com/104250/important-alums-did-they-topple-presidency
‘Strangely silent’? Republican lawmakers weigh in on UVA crisis
Interesting quote from one law maker: “Delegate Steve Landes says in a release, “I am exploring possible legislation for the 2013 General Assembly Session which will address the training of university boards of visitors in the specific areas of transparency as well as review their governance policies.””
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Mark Blumberg is a partner at the law firm of Blumberg Segal LLP in Toronto and works almost exclusively in the areas of non-profit and charity law.