University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors attempts to stifle internal dissent: a cautionary tale (8 August 2014)

Nine days ago, at the University of Virginia – literally a Jeffersonian pillar of rights and freedoms insofar as Thomas Jefferson founded the place – their Board of Governors unsuccessfully tried to stifle any modicum of dissent within their ranks. Here, I report on some of these machinations.

But first a few words on nomenclature. The University of Virginia board is officially known as the ‘Board of Visitors’, where ‘visitors’ is their term for what Carleton University calls ‘governors’. The chair of their board is known as a ‘rector’, the first two of whom were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who basically wrote the original U.S. Constitution and its first ten amendments, aka the Bill of Rights. There is a non-voting student member on the University of Virginia Board of Visitors, but no faculty nor staff members. The term ‘visitor’ has a nice ring, unlike at Carleton University where external board members are known as ‘community at-large’ members. The irony here is that our ‘community at-large’ members are not directly members of the Carleton University community per se (that would be students, faculty, staff, and management).

On 30 July 2014, the governance committee of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors approved a new “Statement of Expectations” (click here for the 30 July 2014 document), from which I quote in its entirety the section titled ‘Discussion and Dissent’, with my emphasis added to the final sentence:

We value and encourage deliberations marked by pertinent questions, constructive dissent, and candid concerns – always in partnership with the President. When a Visitor substantially disagrees with management’s proposal or plans to recommend a notably different course of action, the Visitor should provide as much advance notice as possible to the Rector, the relevant committee chair, the President, or senior officer as appropriate.

After robust discussion of an issue, we strive to reach a consensus on the issue. In the end, each Visitor should vote one’s conscience, confident that minority views will be respected. Visitors shall publicly support, or at the very least not openly oppose, the Board’s action as a strong, visible consensus facilitates successful execution of policy and strategy.

Note the false image of consensus mandated by the final sentence, which would be enough to make Thomas Jefferson and James Madison cringe almost two centuries after their deaths. By trying to stifle dissent, the governance committee of the Board of Visitors pilloried the reputation of the University of Virginia, a reputation that is their primary job to uphold.

This was too much for legislators in the Commonwealth of Virginia to handle. They raised their voices and, five days later, the governance committee replaced the final sentence of the above quoted paragraphs with the following (click here for the original of 4 August 2014 document):

Once decisions are reached, however, Visitors bear a collective responsibility to ensure, as much as possible, that the Board’s actions and decisions are successfully implemented.

This is not perfect, but nonetheless a drastic improvement.

I am not saying that University of Virginia Board of Visitors did everything wrong. In fact, they did one thing in a stellar fashion: they made the report of their governance committee a public document. This made it a self-correcting document. There was vociferous public outcry, and it appears that therefore the Board of Visitors was willing to back-down from their 30 July 2014 governance committee recommendation, and do so quickly. This is in stark contrast to the situation at Carleton. If the governance committee of Carleton University’s Board of Governors had or ever will approve a policy forbidding public dissent by board members, that policy recommendation would be considered confidential and thus not publicly available until the full Board of Governors formally approved that policy. Any consequent damage to Carleton University’s reputation would be very difficult to reverse because it would require a bylaw change. Carleton University Board of Governors’ bylaw changes require a two-thirds majority vote, which makes it very difficult to rescind any egregious policies. This is very different from University of Virginia, where even a whiff of controversy was enough to rescind the poorly thought-out policy.

As the Washington Post’s editorial board stated on 7 August 2014 (here) regarding this University of Virginia debacle:

A major goal of education is to encourage public expression and the free flow of information, and the university’s leadership should emulate that ideal. Practically speaking, muzzling board members’ ability to express themselves is among the quickest ways to exacerbate the divisions that the board is trying to avoid.

The Washington Post’s remark is equally applicable to Carleton University, a public institution founded to serve the community at-large, not just the interests of its “community at-large” board members.

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