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Various levels of openness as UVa, other schools discuss virus

RICHMOND — Governing board members at the University of Virginia chose to go into closed session this week to discuss the university’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Monday meeting was done by telephone because Virginia is under a state of emergency. But almost the entirety of the meeting was done in closed session.

University spokesman Brian Coy said the school has provided volumes of information on its website at about how the university is responding to the pandemic. But he said the board needed to hold its meeting in closed session because “there were series of topics that were not appropriate for those venues to brief the board on.”

The College of William & Mary’s governing board executive committee held an emergency meeting Monday online and after a public session, went into a closed session for further discussion about the coronavirus response.

Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors held a meeting online the week before and kept the entire meeting open.

“Virginia Tech embraces transparent governance and its board shares that belief,” university spokesman Mark Owczarski said by email. “All that was discussed was for the public; more than 170 people viewed the meeting over YouTube.”

Virginia’s FOIA has more than 175 exemptions that allow public bodies — in their discretion — to withhold records or close a meeting.

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors cited several of them in a motion to close its discussion.

Board members said in the motion they were going to consider or discuss investment of public funds where competition or bargaining was involved, and if their discussion was public the financial interests of the university would be adversely affected.

They said they needed advice from their lawyer on specific legal matters.

They also cited the exemption in FOIA that allows them to go into closed session to discuss threats to people or facilities.

And they also cited an exemption in FOIA that allows them to go into closed session to discuss “proprietary, business-related information” pertaining the University of Virginia Medical Center.

The law didn’t require board members to go into closed session for any of that, but the law gives them the discretion. UVa Rector James B. Murray Jr. did not respond to a voicemail Wednesday requesting further elaboration on why the board felt it was important to go into closed session.

The executive committee of the William & Mary Board of Visitors also cited FOIA exemptions in a motion Monday to discuss coronavirus response in closed session.

William & Mary board members said in the motion they needed to discuss personnel, consult with their lawyer about a contract, and discuss threats to safety.

Prior to the closed session, William & Mary administrators gave public updates to the board about the university’s emergency response, financial implications, housing and meals, remote learning and other aspects of the coronavirus response. Members of the public logged in with Zoom to watch or listen.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the nonprofit Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said holding an entire meeting about coronavirus response in closed session is at odds with how Virginia’s local governments are handling the crisis with their online meetings.

“Local governments by and large have been trying really hard to remain open and accountable to the public, making adaptations to the way they meet in a way that accepts public comment and in a way that they are informing the public about their efforts,” she said.

University of Virginia President Jim Ryan and his leadership team will hold an online town hall meeting Thursday to answer questions about coronavirus.

Stacie Gordon, state advocacy manager for the nonprofit Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, said by email that university governing boards should remember to allow public comment during their online meetings.

“As our public colleges and universities face unprecedented challenges, governing boards still have a responsibility to Virginians to remain transparent and accountable in their decision-making.”


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