News Column

Dragas Survives One Test as Panel Votes in Her Favor

Jan 16, 2013

Bill Sizemore

Helen Dragas cleared a key legislative hurdle Tuesday in her effort to retain her seat on the University of Virginia's governing Board of Visitors, winning a 12-3 vote in a state Senate committee.

Still, the fact that her appointment even became a point of controversy in the General Assembly was extraordinary, illustrating the raw wound that festers over Dragas' aborted attempt to oust U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan last summer.

Dragas, a Virginia Beach real estate developer, is the board's rector, or presiding officer. She was instrumental in Sullivan's forced resignation, which was reversed two weeks later after an uproar from U.Va. faculty, students and alumni.

The furor was reignited within days when Gov. Bob McDonnell reappointed Dragas to a second four-year term.

Most appointments are routinely confirmed by the Assembly, but this one set off a round of anti-Dragas lobbying and a counteroffensive by Dragas, who has met with many lawmakers in a bid to keep her seat.

For 22 years, Sen. Janet Howell told the Privileges and Elections Committee, she has voted to confirm every governor's appointment. But "this year, something extraordinary happened," the Fairfax County Democrat said: She received more than 200 emails from U.Va. faculty, students, parents and alumni -- all urging her to oppose Dragas' appointment.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, whose district includes the U.Va. campus, said he has received 10 times that many.

The objections to Dragas center on the lack of transparency in the attempted ouster of Sullivan, Howell and Deeds said. There was no public discussion or vote by the full board.

Howell said the episode has hindered fundraising and led to the university being placed on warning by its accrediting agency.

Howell also accused Dragas of disregarding U.Va.'s honor system "when she tried to influence a student to come forward and use ghost-written material" in an effort to demonstrate student support for the board's actions -- a revelation that emerged from the public release of Dragas' emails.

Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico County, asked Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, the committee chairman, to defer the vote and invite Dragas to Richmond for a public hearing. Obenshain declined, saying he didn't think "Washington-style hearings" would be appropriate.

"This is not the tradition under which we operate," Obenshain said.

The committee heard from three witnesses on Dragas' behalf: Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly, speaking for McDonnell, and two Hampton Roads residents who spoke of Dragas' business integrity and her philanthropic endeavors.

The three votes against Dragas' appointment were cast by Howell, Deeds and Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk. The matter now goes to the full Senate, where the decisive committee vote should work in her favor.

U.Va. was also at the center of a meeting Tuesday evening of a House subcommittee that vetted several bills aimed at preventing the kind of "kerfuffle" -- as Del. Joe Morrissey, D-Henrico County, put it -- that occurred last year. The panel rejected all but two related proposals, both by Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta.

The first (HB1940) would require the boards of all public universities and local community colleges to select at least one faculty member and at least one student to nonvoting, advisory positions.

The other (HB1952) would mandate that board members receive training in 18 areas, including the state Freedom of Information Act, institutional ethics and relations with the institution's president. The bill also directs boards to meet each year with the president to deliver a review of his or her performance and to report annually to the Assembly.

The panel rejected proposals to add voting faculty and student members to public college boards and to require that all potential board appointments be vetted by a statewide commission. It also rejected a bill to require the U.Va. board to define a quorum as a majority of its members.

Source: (c)2013 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

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