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McDonnell indicates hands-off approach in UVA president’s firing

Gov. Bob McDonnell says boards — like the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors, now under fire for the surprise firing of UVA president Teresa Sullivan — exist to make governing decisions and that he won’t micromanage them.

McDonnell, who has been on a trade mission in Europe for more than a week, answered questions about the UVA situation in a conference call with reporters today. The call was scheduled so McDonnell could discuss the trade trip, but every question was about UVA.

He seemed to indicate a hands-off approach, repeatedly saying that he wouldn’t interfere with the governance of boards and commissions.

“The board, from the best that I can determine, made the decisions that they felt were in the best long-term interests of the university,” McDonnell said. “If a governor ever starts to micromanage boards … we will completely undermine our governing structure in higher education in Virginia.”

While some might “expect the governor to fix any crisis that comes up,” he said, that’s not his role.

McDonnell said he believes the UVA Board of Visitors did what it thought was right, and that without being privy to detailed information on the inner workings of the university and its budget, he couldn’t second-guess them.

“These are all things that are uniquely within the province of a board, and not the governor, and not the faculty, and not the General Assembly,” McDonnell said. “It’s impossible at this point for a governor or a legislator, not armed with all the information that a board has, to arbitrarily say that decisions they made were incorrect.”

McDonnell did say he wishes the Board of Visitors had handled Sullivan’s firing more openly and with more communication with the university community.

“I would have liked to have seen things handled a bit differently,” he said, with “a bit more communication with people.”

McDonnell added that the way the situation was handled caused “heartache” and grief among students and faculty, and that it is “certainly a lesson in how a board needs to deal better with a community.”

Asked about Rector Helen Dragas, whose term expires in days, McDonnell declined to say whether he will reappoint her to the board. He said he’ll announce board appointments by July 1.

But, while he pointed out several times that Dragas was originally appointed not by him but by former governor Tim Kaine, McDonnell also praised her leadership.

“She’s been an incredibly good leader and strong participant on the board helping to manage the university,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell has two sons attending the University of Virginia.

He said he supports the Board’s decision early this morning to appoint Commerce School Dean Carl Zeithaml as the interim dean.

“He’s a very well-respected dean, he’s a strong business man,” McDonnell said. “He appears to me to be a good choice as an interim leader for the university.”

McDonnell also said that while state colleges and universities need to provide more focus on “STEM” subjects — science, math and technology — he thinks they must also “preserve the classical liberal arts education.”

“I don’t think it’s an either-or,” he said.

While college presidents, faculty and leaders must be concerned about the operating costs of running a school, and mindful of tuition costs, “at the same time, it’s critically important for our world-class universities in Virginia to offer the courses that make a great university,” McDonnell said.