At the University of Virginia Board of Visitors’ first meeting of the academic year earlier this month, members got an education on how a high-functioning board operates. But not everyone agreed with the lesson.
Clayton S. Rose, who previously served as president of Bowdoin College from 2015 to 2023 and is now a professor at Harvard Business School, led the conversation. He was clear on one point: Board members should “serve the university’s interests” — that is, not personal interests.
“Boards are a single unit, not a collection of free agents with a particular agenda in mind. They focus on the university’s interest,” he told the board. Board members should be “cheerleaders,” he said, protecting the reputation of the institution they serve.
His point elicited some strong criticism from two board members, both appointed by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.
Doug Wetmore, appointed last year, and Paul Harris, who just took his seat on the board this summer, argued that, while it might be true that trustees of private colleges — which Rose is familiar with — serve the university, UVa is different.
UVa is a state institution.
In the school’s own “Statement of Visitor Responsibilities” it makes it clear: “Visitors support the University’s broader public mission and promote the values of a public university, including serving as conduits for conveying the interests of citizens and political leaders of the Commonwealth to the University.”
“We’re a public body,” said Wetmore. “Our responsibilities are laid out in the Virginia Code. We take public oath of office to uphold the state constitution. Our meetings are open to the public. We have FOIA. The money we spend is public money.”
While the board’s members should naturally serve the school itself, they also owe an obligation to Virginia taxpayers and residents, Harris and Wetmore said.
The discussion of leadership also included the relationship between the board and the president.
“Among the board’s most primary and important duties are appointing and evaluating the university’s president,” according to the board’s statement of responsibilities.
Vice Rector Carlos Brown, general counsel for Dominion Energy and an appointee of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, offered an analogy. The president of the university is like a horse, he said. The board builds fences, establishing the parameters of the president’s work, and then allows the president to “roam within the pasture.”
There’s a “partnership” in that analogy, said President Jim Ryan.
“I place great value on the guidance and leadership our Board of Visitors provides in setting a direction for the University and working with my team and me as we work to execute that vision,” Ryan told The Daily Progress in an email after the meeting, clarifying his remarks. “That partnership has worked very well in my time as President, and I am proud of what we’ve been able to achieve together over the past 5 years.”
It shouldn’t be taken for granted though, according to James Murray.
Murray, an investment banker who was appointed to the board by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and then reappointed by Northam, made a point during the board’s meeting to say that a presumption of trust between the board and Ryan could lead to dysfunction.
The remark was followed by a long silence.
As most early meetings go, especially one with recently appointed members, the first meeting the academic year included a great deal of questions regarding the powers of individual members, the ins and outs of the office and what to expect in the months to come.
For instance, at one point, members asked who the university counsel, Clifton Iler, represents in disagreements and challenges the university faces.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Iler said his obligation is owed to the institution and not specific individuals at the institution — echoing Rose’s remarks.
“My title is university counsel, and I think it’s university counsel for a reason,” Iler said.
For Youngkin’s newest appointees, their first meeting was a learning experience, they told The Daily Progress.
That’s true even for visitors who previously served on the board.
“I’m just learning,” said John Nau, the chair and CEO of Silver Eagle Beverages who was appointed this past summer but previously served from 2011 to 2015. “Every board is different. It’s like a corporate board made up of members and what they’re interests are. I’ve seen every report is focused on finances and student life, but every one of them is different, so I’m listening.”
Other visitors are true newcomers, such as Harris.
“In my first year on the board, I anticipate spending a lot of time trying to understand this complex operating environment that is the university and understanding what its strategic priorities are and how they’re being executed,” said Harris, who took his seat at the same time as Nau. “I found the last few days to be very engaging and informative. It’s certainly made me think about the university in a different way.”
Harris was the first Black Republican elected to the House of Delegates since Reconstruction in 1997, but he does have some experience in higher education.
Once upon a time, he was on the other side of the table, he said. He served as a member of the administration at Hampton University for four years and gave presentations to board members. Though still finding his footing in his new position, he said he knows one thing already: He’s not there to “meddle” in administrative work.“I completely relate to administrators at the university and how they carry out their functions with expected oversight from the board but not too much meddling and getting into managing the institution on a day-to-day basis, that’s not our role,” Harris said. “I am very sensitive not to do that. I understand what my role is as a board member is not to get into the day-to-day stuff. That said, I do expect the administrators to not just bring good news all the time, but to be very frank and transparent about problems and challenges that exist so that we can help in our role as board members.”
To that point, Rector Robert Hardie pointed out to board members at the meeting that they should try not to overwhelm staff with information requests.
UVa Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis has previously told the board, especially Youngkin appointees, that her staff has struggled to answer all of their requests for information. Board membres, the school staff have said, need to be sure to follow the proper processes and go through committees to get information.Hardie asked Rose how he dealt with information requests during his time at Bowdoin. “The staff has a day job,” Hardie said, and they shouldn’t have to undergo a “fire drill” every time a board member asks a question.