Can UVA Rector Helen Dragas Survive? Could the UVA Mess Help Allen and Cuccinelli?


    ( – promoted by lowkell)

    by Paul Goldman

    In the long term, the firing of University of Virignia President Teresa Sullivan will be seen as a seminal event in the growing debate over the future of education in the Commonwealth. Helen Dragas, the rector of UVA, and Ms. Sullivan, the ousted UVA President, apparently represent opposing schools of thought on the future of higher education and how to fund it.

    Both individuals are enormously talented. Ms. Dragas had all the financial, business and political forces defining today’s new politics at her back. Ms. Sullivan had the forces of the traditional educational community behind her, once dominant in politics but threatened today as never before.

    We see this “new” vs “old” education debate in so many different forms right now, from K-12 through the highest reaches of post-graduate education. Resource allocation on all levels of our society is undergoing a fundamental challenge. Education is not immune. But there is no way to generate short-term proof on which approach will produce better outcomes for the future.

    Thus, in the end it comes down to faith. Ms. Dragas had one belief, Ms. Sullivan another.


    The toothpaste is now publicly out of the tube. It can’t not be put back. The ramifications are many. Given 2012 and 2013 being big political years in Virginia, the politics is fascinating in terms of how it affects key players.  


    A week ago, I thought Ms. Dragas had a good chance to be the state’s first female Governor. Why? She seemed an ideal candidate for Lt. Governor. And if you win that race, then you become one of the few people capable of being elected Governor four years later. Ms. Dragas had the whole package. She was a rising star in my view.

    A week ago that is.

    But she is no longer in control of her  image. This can be an image killer for someone who was essentially unknown to the press, for the media is the filter through which the public learns the “facts” in this matter.

    This may not be fair, but she is the face of the event along with Ms. Sullivan: since Ms. Sullivan is the “victim,” then the press needs a “villain.”

    Unless Ms. Dragas takes charge of her own image, she will be permanently damaged from all that is happening and likely will happen.  

    If she wants to avoid this reality, she needs to PUSH BACK HARD AND FAST.

    Indeed, her advisors had best deal with the following question: Will she be re-appointed to the UVA Board of Visitors by the Governor, as her term expires in a few weeks? Indeed, does she want to be re-appointed?


    Ms. Dragas’ term on the UVA Board expires in a few weeks. Everyone in the Commonwealth is watching to see whether McDonnell reappoints her or not. Both have a lot riding on what McDonnell decides.

    On a net, net basis: Ms. Dragas needs for the Governor to reappoint her in terms of rehabilitating her image. But in so doing, the Governor will be seen as effectively endorsing what she did. Given his silence, he seems to be “jake” with it. He claims not to have known. But yet he doesn’t seem furious as would other Governors for being left out of the loop.

    In terms of 200-proof politics, McDonnell’s safest political play would be NOT TO REAPPOINT Ms. Dragas.

    Why? He could ask her to send him a letter asking not to be reappointed. She would likely do it if the choice was either that letter or not being reappointed.

    This allows McDonnell to praise her service, her willingness to step aside to make it easier to resolve the situation, and also get a new person more loyal to him without being seen as pulling the rug out from Dragas. This is the best play for McD.

    But even with this sugar coat, it would be a devastating blow to Dragas’ image, one that could ruin her career in public service.

    She is what, mid 40’s? She still has a lot to offer. She is very talented. Should this be a hanging offense?


    Given the political realities, what is the upside for Allen in defending the firing of Ms. Sullivan?

    I don’t see it. Mr. Allen has always run best as the rebel, not as the establishment player.

    Let me cut to the chase: This is hardball time folks, a general election for the Senate with money pouring in from outside the state.

    Why should Allen care if he crosses McDonnell on Dragas? Do the math. McDonnell just got rejected by his own party on the issue of Convention vs. Primary. So he has no real support there. McDonnell needs for Romney to win the Presidency; and that seems unlikely if Romney can’t win Virginia. So McDonnell is facing big lame duck status if he can’t get a win soon.

    Thus McDonnell needs for Allen to run as strong as possible. So whatever Allen does, McDonnell can’t abandon him. Allen is a UVA alum. THEY VOTE. This is a no brainer really. Kaine appointed Dragas.

    To me, Allen taking the populist pro-Sullivan side gives him credibility with a whole group of people that is not currently for him. He loses nothing on the other side except campaign cash, which he is going to get from other sources anyway.

    If Allen is seen as opposing the kind of actions Dragas took but McDonnell reappoints her, so much the better for Allen!!

    This is politics. On a net-net basis, Allen wins a lot more by “going rogue” here.


    This is a Father’s Day gift for Cuccinelli. He is the anti-establishment guy in the 2013 gubernatorial race; what is more establishment than the UVA Board deciding to throw out a popular female President because they feel she wasn’t pro-business enough in her thinking?

    This is the gift that keeps on giving for Cuccinelli and it doesn’t take much political smarts to make the right play.

    Cuccinelli isn’t going to get any real money from those on the UVA Board. The faculty is against him due to the climate change suit. The basic educational community is against him around VA.

    But they all support Sullivan big time.

    So for Cuccinelli, it is all upside to take the populist side of the argument. Moreover, he can set a new standard for board appointments that force Terry McAuliffe to respond.

    For a change agent like Cuccinelli, this is huge gift on education, the key issue next year in my writings now for months. He has never cared about crossing McDonnell. As AG, Cuccinelli can reap the ultimate payback and still win votes with the people. If he stays out of this, I will be amazed.


    He has to back McDonnell’s play.


    He has to back Dragas.


    He needs to back Kaine on this.


    Allen and Cuccinelli have the big openings on the offense. But both have stayed quiet to date. This leaves a big vacuum in my view. I am betting that Dragas changes her PR strategy. She’s her best asset. Keeping her under wraps has been a big mistake to date.

    • K in VA

      The political fallout from all this is one thing. What bothers me more, though, is the hit to education. I suspect Mr. Jefferson would weep a mighty river over what’s become of his little college … and his state … and his country.

    • Jim B

      According to the Post this morning, Dragas is a fiscal conservative. Since she was appointed by Kaine I assuming she is basically a blue dog or is she a republican? Either way I think she picked an unnecessary fight.

    • Dan Sullivan

      I wouldn’t be certain that’s the Kaine thing if Kaine can cotton the kind of intrigue that is alleged.

      And there is no disgrace for either in abandoning Dragas if she has wandered off the reservation. Sometimes people disappoint you.

    • Elaine in Roanoke

      Dragas was appointed to the board of Visitors in 2008. That was six years ago. She was elected rector by the rest of the board. I fail to see how Kaine is involved in a six-year-old appointment of a woman, elevated to the post of rector by others, who now decides to mess up at UVa. I also don’t see the political ramifications for those running in 2013 of what is basically a fight over the future direction of UVa. The only thing I see here is a lousy decision that McDonnell will have to make very soon. I hope to high heaven that it bothers him on his European vacation…I mean his “European trade tour.”

      Perhaps the time has come to end the long tradition of putting big campaign contributors, the extremely rich, and business types on college and university boards to the exclusion of people who understand the role of a university in society and the need for responsible change as technology changes.  

    • jwsevert


      I’ve been following this rather closely since Saturday when I had time to catch up on e-mails from fellow Law alumni.

      I think you’re vastly understating the level of animosity and emotion the situation has generated.  There were 800 people in support of Sullivan at the Faculty Senate meeting at 5:00 on Fathers’ Day, and I’ll bet there will be at least 1,000 on the Lawn tomorrow afternoon.

      I’ve spoken with faculty members and alumni who are beyond livid both with the action and, especially, the manner in which it was carried out.  

      Springing it on Heywood Fralin, a former Rector, and Vince Mastracco at the last minute is one of the most underhanded tactics I’ve heard of in a long time.

      Dragas is toast politically.  If she were a Democratic nominee for statewide office, she’d be the first in my memory to lose Charlottesville…and she’d lose in a landslide of epic proportions.  Perhaps she has a future as an appointee.

      Any political figure who backs Dragas, particularly a Democrat, will face quite a backlash.

    • Kitten1

      Paul, I have not seen any sign of this from her actions we learned so far. I think you are being very kind to Dragas. I think she is toast, the manner in which this was carried out will make people to really pause before voting for her for any elected office. She has not shown the proper judgment, maturity, openness and political skills in this debacle – with that history I wonder how she can even run a campaign for a  major elected office. I don’t think she will be reappointed, and I would be surprised if she could keep her position past tomorrow.  

    • Paba

      To suggest that these two are somehow just presenting differing visions of education is just wrong. One is clearly trying to press a corporate mentality onto higher education. In this vision, there’s no room for a true liberal arts education, unless it can be monetized and justified within the world of corporate buzzwords. If Virginia Democrats want to take after the for-profit school model, that’s their prerogative. Just don’t expect those of us who still think there’s some virtue to academic freedom, inquiry, and the liberal arts to go along with you as you turn education into a commodity like a car or a house.

      Dragas is what’s wrong with education in America.

    • CCK

      and she has to go now.  And, if she was some supposed up and comer for the Dems in Virginia, I say, thank goodness we dodged that bullet!!  There is absolutely nothing right about how she handled this situation…boneheaded from start to finish.  Unless something truly scandalous comes out, this attempted coup (the “Darden coup” as my son, a 2012 UVA graduate, and his UVA friends are calling it) is an embarrassment and an outrage and Dems would be well advised to acknowledge it as such.  And, no, I won’t count the Breitbart investigation into supposed academic fraud by Elizabeth Warren which somehow also involves President Sullivan as a sufficient scandal.  Won’t link to Breitbart but the Breitbart “connection” to Sullivan’s ouster was linked in a comment to this article by a UVA professor:

      I can tell you that my son and his friends are outraged and disgusted by this whole situation.  Most of his friends are remaining in Virginia and will be voting in Virginia.  If Dragas is an example of what the Dems were planning to offer their voters in Virginia, yeah, well, good luck getting kids like my son and his friends to give a damn.  

    • ponderer

      Just read her statement.  I guess a top flight PR firm is worth something.   Too bad Kiernan’s email puts the lie to much of what she says!

      She and her ilk must think we all are stunningly stupid and lacking in memory, honor, integrity, and trust.  

      To see her use those last three words to describe her coup is infuriating and heart breaking at the same time.

      Do her mendacity, hubris, and duplicity know no bounds?

    • CCK

      (which I posted in a reply to ponderer, below) to Sullivan’s substantive discussion of her vision for the University:

      Going to the mattresses for Dragas helpful to Virginia Democrats – I think not!  Tim Kaine needs to  distance himself from her.  She is over….time to move on.

    • … but this should be a permanent exit from politics for Dragas.

      Kaine cannot back her, will not. He needs to focus on the campaign, where her defense could well sink his fate.

      She needs to repair the damage to the reputation of the business her father gave her to run, and to the tarnish she and Kington have added to the already unpopular Dominion Resources, whose board they populate together.

      If she were to openly admit and retract her mistakes, orchestrating Sullivan’s rehire, I think it possible she could in time be seen as a positive figure.

      The current course, however, is the worst possible for her and UVA, sacrificing both form and function simultaneously.

      When you lose the esteemed Professor William Wulf with the sort of resignation he penned, that says it all. Unconscionable, unacceptable, unforgettable.

    • WahooLaw

      I’ve never known a politician not connected to a toxic tarbaby choose, voluntarily, to step and embrace it. Whatever it is Kaine wants to run on, it’s not Helen Dragas. This is not his problem, and under no circumstances will he let it become his problem.

      She’s going under the bus. From the perspective of those who worked the board to get this done, she was probably a somewhat naive sacrificial pawn all along.